The Shadow of the Torturer

The Shadow of the Torturer is a science fantasy novel by American writer Gene Wolfe, published by Simon & Schuster in May 1980.[2] It is the first of four volumes in The Book of the New Sun[1] which Wolfe had completed in draft before The Shadow of the Torturer was published. It relates the story of Severian, an apprentice Seeker for Truth and Penitence (the guild of torturers), from his youth through his expulsion from the guild and subsequent journey out of his home city of Nessus.

In 1987, Locus magazine ranked The Shadow of the Torturer number four among the 33 "All-Time Best Fantasy Novels", based on a poll of subscribers.[3][a]

The Shadow of the Torturer
Shadow of the torturer
Cover of the first edition
AuthorGene Wolfe
Cover artistDon Maitz
CountryUnited States
SeriesThe Book of the New Sun[1]
GenreScience fantasy
PublisherSimon & Schuster
Publication date
May 1980
Media typePrint (hardback & paperback)
813/.5/4 19
LC ClassPZ4.W85615 Sh PS3573.O52
Followed byThe Claw of the Conciliator 

Plot summary

Severian, an apprentice in the torturers' guild, barely survives a swim in the River Gyoll. On his way back to the Citadel Severian and several other apprentices sneak into a necropolis where Severian first encounters Vodalus, the legendary revolutionary. Vodalus, along with two others, including a woman named Thea, are robbing a grave. Vodalus and his companions are confronted by volunteer guards. Severian saves Vodalus's life, earning his trust and the reward of a single "gold" coin.

Shortly before Severian is elevated to journeyman he encounters and falls in love with Thecla, a beautiful aristocratic prisoner. Thecla's crime is never made clear, though it is ultimately implied that she is imprisoned for political reasons since Thecla's half-sister is Thea, Vodalus's lover. The Autarch (ruler of the Commonwealth) wishes to use Thecla to capture Vodalus. When finally Thecla is put to torture, Severian takes pity on her and helps her commit suicide, by smuggling a knife into her cell, thus breaking his oath to the guild.

Though Severian expects to be tortured and executed, instead the head of the guild is uncharacteristically forgiving and dispatches Severian to Thrax, a distant city which has need of an executioner. Master Palaemon gives Severian a letter of introduction to the archon of the city and Terminus Est, a magnificent executioner's sword. He departs the guild headquarters, traveling through the decaying city of Nessus. He finally comes upon an inn, where he forces the innkeeper to take him in despite being full and is asked to share a room with other boarders. This is where he first meets Baldanders and Dr. Talos, travelling as mountebanks, who invite Severian to join them in a play to be performed the same day. During breakfast, Dr. Talos manages to recruit the waitress, Jolenta, for his play and they set out into the streets. Not intending to participate, Severian parts with the group and stops at a rag shop to purchase a mantle to hide his fuligin cloak (the uniform of his guild, which inspires terror in common folk). The shop is owned by a twin brother and sister, and the brother immediately takes interest in Terminus Est. Severian refuses to sell the sword, shortly after which a masked and armoured hipparch enters the shop and challenges Severian to a duel. Severian is forced to accept, and he departs with the sister, Agia, to secure an avern, a deadly plant that is used for dueling. While on their way, urged by Agia's bet to a passing fiacre, their driver crashes into and destroys the altar of a religious order, where Agia is accused of stealing a precious artifact. After Agia is searched and released, they continue their journey to the Botanic Gardens, a large landmark of Nessus created by the mysterious Father Inire, right hand to the Autarch.

Inside the gardens, Severian falls into a lake used to inter the dead, and while pulling himself out he finds a young woman named Dorcas to have come up from the lake as well. Dazed and confused, the woman follows Severian and Agia. Severian secures the avern and the group proceeds to an inn near the dueling grounds. While eating dinner, Severian receives a mysterious note warning about one of the women. After dinner, Severian meets with his challenger, and though stabbed by the avern he miraculously survives and finds that his challenger was the male owner of the rag shop, Agia's brother. When Severian wakes again, he finds himself to be in a lazaret. After finding Dorcas and identifying himself, he is requested to perform an execution. The prisoner turns out to be his challenger, Agia's brother, whom he executes.

Severian and Dorcas return to their travels and while searching his belongings, Severian finds the Claw of the Conciliator. Apparently Agia stole the Claw from the altar they destroyed and placed it in Severian's belongings knowing that she would be searched. Eventually Severian and Dorcas encounter Dr. Talos, Baldanders and Jolenta, who are almost ready to perform the play they had invited Severian to the morning before. Severian assists in the play, and the next day the group sets out toward the great gate leading out of Nessus. When they are at the gate, there is suddenly a commotion and the narration abruptly ends.


The Shadow of the Torturer won the annual World Fantasy Award and British Science Fiction Association Award as the year's best novel. Among other annual awards for fantasy or science fiction novels, it placed second for the Locus (fantasy), third for the Campbell Memorial (SF), and was a finalist for the Nebula (SF).[4][5][6]

Limited edition

Centipede Press, a small independent fine press, produced a limited edition of The Shadow of the Torturer in 2007: one hundred copies, signed by Gene Wolfe, with full color artwork by Alexander Preuss of Germany. The $225 book had a ribbon marker, head and tail bands, three-piece cloth construction, and a protective slipcase. It is now out of print.[7]

Comic book

The novel was adapted as a serial comic book, The Shadow of the Torturer by Ted Naifeh (Innovation Publishing, 1991). It was cancelled after three of six planned issues.[8]


  1. ^ Locus subscribers voted only two Middle-earth novels by J. R. R. Tolkien and A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin ahead of Wolfe's The Shadow of the Torturer. Third and fourth ranks were exchanged in the 1998 rendition of the poll, which considered Wolfe's Book of the New Sun and Le Guin's Earthsea series as single entries.


  1. ^ a b The Book of the New Sun series listing at the Internet Speculative Fiction Database (ISFDB). Retrieved 2012-04-23. Select a title to see its linked publication history and general information. Select a particular edition (title) for more data at that level, such as a front cover image or linked contents.
  2. ^ "Publication: The Shadow of the Torturer". Internet Speculative Fiction Database. Retrieved 2017-10-12.
  3. ^ "Locus Poll Best All-time Novel Results: 1987, fantasy novels". Locus Online: Books. Locus Publications. Retrieved 2012-04-18. Originally published in the monthly Locus: The Magazine Of The Science Fiction & Fantasy Field, August 1987.
    • An older edition of the website links multiple pages providing the results of several polls and a little other information. "The Locus Index to SF Awards: 1987 Locus All-time Poll". Locus Publications. Archived from the original on 2004-01-13. Retrieved 2011-10-12.
    • See also "1987 Locus Poll Award". ISFDB. Retrieved 2012-04-12.
  4. ^ "Gene Wolfe" Archived 2008-03-14 at the Wayback Machine. The Locus Index to SF Awards: Index to Literary Nominees. Locus Publications. Retrieved 2012-04-23.
  5. ^ "1981 Award Winners & Nominees". Worlds Without End. Retrieved 2009-07-06.
  6. ^ "1980 Award Winners & Nominees". Worlds Without End. Retrieved 2009-07-06.
  7. ^ "The Book of the New Sun by Gene Wolfe; Centipede Press". J. Davis. March 14, 2011. The Whole Book Experience].
  8. ^ "Ted Naifeh" Archived August 27, 2011, at the Wayback Machine. Revolutionize Comics. Oni Press.

External links

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The Book of the New Sun
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