I recently ranted to a friend about how irritated I am by teenage infatuation as a plot motivation. A lot of it stemmed from my fairly recent consumption of several TV shows and at least one book. Last December, I re-watched and finished Legend of Korra and suffered through two seasons of Korra & Mako’s miserable on-again-off-again dramatic and unnecessary relationship. Then I re-watched Avatar: The Last Airbender hoping to remember why I love this series so much, but instead rolled my eyes back into my skull so far I ended up with a headache every time Aang mooned over Katara. To top off my trifecta of annoying I read Shadow and Bone by Leigh Bardugo, where the protagonist spends 90% of her time talking about how she feels about boys despite the fact that she just became a fucking wizard. All of these things contributed to my mindset as I started another book: Shadow of the Torturer by Gene Wolfe. Wolfe’s series The Book of the New Sun has been lauded by critics and authors alike. The series has won multiple awards along with a place in history among classic science-fiction. This was a series that has been so acclaimed that I almost feel bad for not liking it, but I was underwhelmed at best. What follows may seem like a surface level analysis because Wolfe’s Urth is a world rich with allegory and possibility for greater understanding beyond just the text, but sometimes, as a reader, I get too hung up on a certain aspect of the story that I simply can’t enjoy myself.
My biggest complaint is how Severian interacts with women. I understand that from a character and world-building perspective he’s going to be awkward. He grew up in a cloister full of dudes that trained him to be good at torturing people. I get it. This guy isn’t going to be a street-wise Casanova. Yet, whenever he meets a woman we’re treated to his self-righteous lust-disguised-as-love schtick and her coyly giving him the run-around until eventually succumbing to his animal magnetism.
This book is only about 200 pages long, and throughout the course of the book Severian describes his deep ‘love’ for a woman at least three times. First, to the elusive Thecla, sister to the lover of a revolutionary wanted by the powers that be. She’s being held as a ‘client’ at the Torturer’s Guild, hoping to lure her sister and her lover out of hiding. This romance is the closest it gets to being genuine. It starts as mild infatuation, which grows into a potentially legitimate relationship. They talk about books and mythology. But, Severian stumbles into the trap that most well-intentioned young men in fiction fall into: he idealizes Thecla into being more than what she is. It’s a problem because by making her unattainable, she becomes more of an object or a goal than a human being. His infatuation becomes obsessive and serves well to demonstrate how Severian will continue to interact with women. When it comes time for Thecla to be tortured, he takes mercy on her by assisting in her suicide. This inevitably gets him exiled from his guild for being a terrible torturer.
The head of the Torturer’s Guild allows Severian to live, gives him a sword, and sets him on the great and magical journey that moves the plot along. Then we meet Agia, who Severian immediately falls in love with. Didn’t your girlfriend just die like 20 pages ago?! What is wrong with you? Also, Severian seems to praise himself for falling in love with a woman that was not particularly attractive, as if it were somehow virtuous, not normal, to love someone for more than their good looks. After being swindled into a duel, he and Agia go on a convoluted adventure to prepare for Severian’s inevitable death by duel. Cue cock-tease Agia attempting to seduce Severian. While they’re out looking for the magic-poison plant that he will need to fight the unnecessary duel, they come across Dorcas, who Severian immediately falls in love with.
There is a scene when we’re first introduced to Dorcas where they wax poetic about pouring all the evil out of the world, and Dorcas ends they argument by putting his hand on her boob. We get a lovely description of the suppleness of her breast and rosey nipples. It comes out of nowhere in the conversation, to the point that I actually verbalized, “Wait… What?” while reading in public. I think this was the scene in which I officially gave up on this book. I was so deeply bothered by how women existed in this world that I didn’t want to read it anymore. In all actuality, I don’t know if I really want to talk about it anymore. The rest of the book contains a duel, an expected betrayal, a miraculous recovery, a spontaneous play, a conversation in which Severian actually manages to talk to Dorcas like a human being, a magic item magically appearing, and an abrupt ending so that you’ll have to read the next book.
Maybe there’s something wrong with me if I can’t appreciate the beauty of The Book of The New Sun. The prose didn’t wow me. The … pacing. Felt. Unnatural? Severian never developed as a human being in my mind, and women were treated like objects to be adored and ogled. I guess this reiterates the fact that some things are just a matter of taste … and I thought it was unintentionally tasteless. So, sorry for not liking it. I feel like I should have, but this one was just not for me.