Book Review: Shadow of the Torturer

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I tried to read this book in 2014 and hated it. In fact, this was one of the first one-star reviews I ever gave, deciding that a DNF doesn’t rate more from me. Since that attempt was less than three years ago, I initially didn’t see the need to put myself through that again.

And then, in the course of my Hugo/Nebula/WFA novel winners quest, I found an audio version and thought maybe I could manage that while commuting. And I was right, but I still didn’t enjoy the book. There were several times I probably would have stopped or skipped ahead if I hadn’t been driving at the time.

Severian’s character is strange and not really workable for me. He’s actually presented very well while still serving with the Torturer’s Guild. His personality, while distinct from his friends and fellow students and journeymen, fits the mold for how he’s grown up in the guild.

But that personality shifts dramatically almost as soon as he walks out the front door, by turns allowing himself to be manipulated, by others a passive participant in life, and by still others he becomes an arrogant jerk. No, not everyone is consistent of character in the real world, either, but Severian seems to be very gumbified, molded by the author into a completely new character to fit whatever situation the author feels like putting him into. It gets both tiring and irritating.

To go along with the lack of a consistent character, we have a lack of consistent story once he’s away from the guild. Nothing really happens in the second half of the book. We careen from situation to situation, barely advancing the plot and not really advancing the characters of Severian and companions. After enough of these situations have gone by, the author apparently decides that’s enough for one book and the narrative just ends.

Not exactly a cliffhanger, though they are in the middle of something that hasn’t been explained at all, and with no real warning. The story just stops without telling us anything is coming. Severian is going through another door, and this seems like a good place to break things off, telling us we can read further in his memoirs if we choose.

And in the afterword, we find out it’s a tale of the future and the author is merely a translator? Olaf Stapledon pulled this in Last and First Men, and it didn’t really work for me then, and it doesn’t work for me now, especially on top of the book that I just read.

Overall rating: 2 stars. Again, I’m well aware that this book, and the series it starts, is well thought of by big parts of SF literary fandom. Yes, I’m equally well aware that Mr. Wolfe is considered a giant in the genre by some other really big names in the genre. Yes, it won two major awards.

But I have to ask again: so what? Just because a book is critically acclaimed or wins awards doesn’t mean any particular reader has to like it, and I didn’t. Your mileage may vary, but I won’t be reading the next book in the series even though it also won a major award (the Nebula this time). I’m actually a little sorry I spent the time to try this one again.

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Lance
Lance Schonberg is an eclectic genre fiction author with more than two dozen stories published or on the way. 2019 is the year he dives into independent publishing, starting with "Thorvald's Wyrd", "Skip To My Luu", and "Turn the World Around". And he needs a more exciting short bio.

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