The Shadow of the Torturer


  • First publication Simon and Schuster hardcover, 1980; jacket painting by Don Maitz


  • 1981 BSFA Award
  • 1981 World Fantasy Award


Complete plot summary -- SPOILERS
The Shadow of the Torturer is the first volume of the four-volume Book of the New Sun, which is itself the first part of the twelve-volume "Solar" or "Briah" cycle.

  • Obscure words
  • Sources of quotes
  • Meanings of names
  • References to other works
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someone wondered what the disturbance was at the gate of Nessus toward the end of book one. I don't think its a coincidence that the chapter is named Hethor and he makes his first appearence. My theory is that he has loosed some sort of creature that is causing quite a commotion.

Unanswered Questions


  • Simon and Schuster hardcover:
    • Jacket flaps:
    "One expects any book from Gene Wolfe to be a classic -- and here it is." -- Thomas M. Disch

    In a stunning blend of the lyric extravagance of fantasy and the keen edge of science fiction, meeting in a future so distant that it seems like the ancient past, Gene Wolfe begins his chronicle of Severian the Torturer, in this the first volume of The Book of the New Sun.

    One is not born into the torturers' guild, one is adopted there from the children of its victims. In the great Citadel built of unsmeltable gray metal, young Severian and his fellow apprentices study to achieve the rank of Master Torturer learning the ancient mysteries of the guild, sworn to torture whom the Autarch says to torture, and to kill whom he says to kill.

    But with the coming of Thecla, a beautiful and intelligent woman whose indiscretions have lost her her place in the inner circle of concubines of the House Absolute, life changes for Severian, as he disobeys the rules he has been raised to follow. The young torturer expects to be killed for his crime; instead he is exiled from the city to serve as a simple executioner in distant Thrax ,the City of Windowless Rooms. As he leaves, his master gifts him with the ancient executioner's sword, Terminus Est, the Line of Division.

    So armed, he sets forth into the vast City, heading for the distant gate. On his way he encounters the twins Agia and Agilus, who drive him to an arcane duel on the Sanguinary Field; the acting troupe of Dr. Talos, a charlatan, Baldanders, a monstrous giant, and the lovely Jolenta; and Dorcas, a mysterious girl who appears on the shore of the Lake of Birds, where the dead lie.

    Into Severian's hands falls also the miraculous gem, the Claw of the Conciliator, whose powers promise to lead him to the very throne of the House Absolute. But first he must journey north, to the land of the mountains, and it is at the great gate of the City Imperishable, the largest in the world, that the first volume of The Book of the New Sun closes, with Severian standing in the portal of his destiny.

    Volume II of The Book of the New Sun, The Claw of the Conciliator, will appear in 1981.

    GENE WOLFE is best known as the writer of nearly a hundred science-fiction short stories and novellas, one of which, The Death of Doctor Island, won the Nebula Award. His book The Fifth Head of Cerberus has been widely praised. Wolfe lives in Barrington, Illinois, wiht his wife and four children, where he writes five pages every day on one of two ancient IBM typewriters.
    • Back cover:
    "The First Volume of a Masterpiece"*

    "Gene Wolfe is a wizard, a torturer, frightening, delightful. Beware! This is magic stuff! ... Totally original, new, incomparable: the beginning of something great, the first exploration of a new world."
    "This chronicle of Severian's apprenticeship to the Guild of Torturers is science fantasy on a par with the best of Le Guin or Moorcock. Wolfe's world of Urth is a reminder that Romantic was once a dangerous word. Dark, daunting, and thoroughly believable."

    "A striking portrait of the artist as a young torturer. It takes hold of you and conducts you down strange corridors..."

    "...Surely a chain of conjuror's scarves, as one fantastic reality is pulled out of the folds of the one before... One thinks at times of Jack Vanc's richly textured alien-human cultures, or of the rotting world-castle Gormenghast, of Aldiss's baroque Malacia, or Borges's mcrocosms....But it is Wolfe's own inimitable brand of strangeness...which slips the shirt of painful beauty on the reader, compelling him to follow the chain of conjuror's scarves...for what we sense as each emerges is a new and deeper level of reality beneath the one that dazzled us just now."

    "No one else could have written it. Scenes of vivid horror and velvet humor, episodes of bravura slapstick and vaudevillian bravery....A book a protean as its author's talent. Adventure, pain, laughter, heartbreak. And...that literary rarity, wisdom. No one who values intelligence, strangeness, and beauty in the same piece of fiction is likely to finish The Shadow of the Torturer either dissatisfied or sated."