It's interesting, isn't it, how Severian the Great almost forgets to tell us the important early detail of his having been rescued by the undine who may or may not turn out to be Juturna (but probably is) in his haste to tell us about how he first met Vodalus and Thea? But of course, as he insists on telling us oh, so often, Severian is incapable of forgetting, right? Right???
An important choice to make in reading or re-reading Book of the New Sun -- or any Gene Wolfe, really -- is how much one is going to rely on the unreliable narrator. The first time I read these novels, I trusted Severian's account completely (or almost completely. I mean, come on, every woman he meets falls in love with him, or at least lust? Really?), and I've told EssJay, who was getting skittish as she learned of the existence of things like Urth.net and its years and years of archived argument and speculation about these books that doing so is still a worthwhile and enjoyable experience, but even so, as I crept toward the end of Citadel of the Autarch, I had to wonder just how much and how deeply I had been bullshitted. Or if maybe I was just reading Severian bullshitting himself.
Then, of course, I got my hands on things like The Solar Labyrinth and started delving through urth.net and I really lost my mind. Not since I tackled Ulysses for the first, second and third times have I encountered so many strategies for appreciating a story. If a character is associated with gold, he or she is a secret relative of Severian's. If you never see his/her/its face, it's probably Father Inire. Oh, and there might be a whole bunch of Severians. There might be a new "cast-off" Severian created every time "our" Severian has a brush with death. Some of the more interesting characters might actually be living their lives backwards, Merlin-style, but still appearing to age normally from our perspective. On and on and on.
But since one of my best reading buddies is reading these for the first time and I don't want to piss her off/scare her away, I'm going to focus on how these books work on the surface level for the time being, both to try to avoid spoilers (though it's hard to avoid these when so many plot developments are telegraphed so far in advance, like the fact that Severian is going to be Autarch someday) and to try to keep my posts down to readable length.
Oh sure, I say that now, you say. Heh.
At any rate, so far, Shadow of the Torturer comes across as a somewhat standard-looking fantasy novel, albeit with some science fictional elements that hint at the series' nature as a variant on the Dying Earth subgenre. Chiefly right now these are just hinted at: the moon is large and green instead of the little white orb we're used to, the main levels of the Matachin Tower are referred to as being where the propulsion chamber was, etc.*
But right now, we're just exploring Severian's Humble Origins as an apprentice to the Seekers of Truth and Penitence, aka the Torturer's Guild, the kind of union that only a really repressive regime would find indispensible, right? Right????
Anyway, Severian and his friends Drotte, Eata and Roche have gone on one of their sneaky swimming expeditions, cutting through the great city of Nessus' sprawling and ancient cemetery to get to the river Gyoll at the tail end of their last summer together as apprentices. Soon Drotte and Roche will become journeymen, while Severian will become the captain of apprentices. Though Severian tells this story to us backwards, he at first nearly drowns in Gyoll, trapped in the roots of a veritable forest of nenuphars (water lilies -- you've got to love Wolfe's appropriation of archaic and obscure words for these books, or else you'll go nuts). He doesn't ever start sucking in water, though, does he (wink to the re-readers)? No, he is found by the giant underwater woman with the beautiful but inexpressive face, aka an undine, a Bride of Abaia, who is probably Juturna but doesn't have to be, but I tend to subscribe to the idea that it is, because we can't have too many rebel undines out there, can we?** Or maybe she's just mistaken. But, Juturna or not, what is she doing there, anyway?
All of this near sorta-drowning (wink) and being rescued takes up lots of time, though, and so by the time our boys are ready to head back, it's sundown, and the gate to the cemetery is locked up tight. Oh noes! Fortunately, a bunch of louts, one of whom has the key, have shown up to guard their recent dead from graverobbers! Hooray! But these aren't quite the dumbasses Severian and co. take them for, and so their attempt at guile fails and they have to rely on Eata just sneaking through the gate the louts have opened, so they have the excuse to hunt him down together.
So of course, because Gene Wolfe knows better than to ignore the dictates of Chekov's Graverobbers, Severian runs afoul of the graverobbers, who turn out to be, not just run of the mill ghouls or weirdos, but exultants -- members of the ruling class of Nessus who exhibit the extraordinary height and long limbs of, say, humans who evolved on a world with lower gravity, somewhere out there among the stars.*** One of these turns out to be Vodalus, the closest thing to a rebel leader Nessus seems to have; another is one Thea, a beautiful woman with a "heart shaped face" with whom Severian develops an obsession that is going to change his fate rather a lot. When Vodalus risks his life to protect Thea from the louts, Severian decides without deciding that he will now be a Vodalus partisan for life, and, for good measure, saves Vodalus' life. Drama button!
Vodalus is grateful in an offhand way and tosses Severian a coin that turns out to be a gold chrisos with a portrait of the Autarch on it. For some reason, Severian is somewhat surprised later on to find that the portrait bears no resemblance to Vodalus -- this being in a crisis in which Severian reveals to us that he considers himself to be insane. Hooray for unreliable narrators.
We then get a slice of apprentice torturer life, including a gruesome interlude with a maidservant who has just been partially flayed in "the full boot" and a visit to Severian's secret place, a mausoleum he chose for its coat of arms depicting a spaceship, a fountain and a rose (!!!!!!!!) before we meet a figure who won't actually be important until, oh, Urth of the New Sun, Triskele****. But he's moderately important in this bit, too, is the big doggie whose life Severian saves (or restores?), because it's in chasing him that Severian first stumbles into an unknown part of the Citadel, the Atrium of Time and meets Valeria, a pretty and dark-haired young woman in "antique" metallic clothing (ding ding! We know who Robert Borski thinks she is, in addition to who she is going to become, unless this is our first reading) who explains that all the clockfaces and sundials about the place aren't why it's called the Atrium of Time, but rather that they are there because it is the Atrium of Time, and treats Severian to a nice tea-time before saying cheery-bye. Hell of a name for a place, the Atrium of Time, what?
We next follow Severian, some time later, into what may well turn out to be a part of the House Absolute as well as part of the Citadel (both being the sort of places that are kind of everywhere and nowhere), though we never find out for sure. What we do know, is that its walls are lined with ancient paintings, and among them is Rudesind, a strange man whose job is to clean and restore them; he's been doing this for so long that he's about to begin working on a picture by the famous Fechin (an artist of such mythic stature that every person of a certain age in the land claims to have met him back in the day) for the second time in his lifetime. But as Severian first encounters him, he's working on something else, highly iconic for us 20th century reader:
The picture he was cleaning showed an armored figure standing in a desolate landscape. It had no weapon, but held a staff bearing a strange, stiff banner. The visor of this figure's helmet was entirely of gold, without eye slits or ventilation; in its polished surface the deathly desert could be seen in reflection, and nothing more.From this description and the discussion that follows, it's pretty obvious that this is a photograph (or painting of a photograph) of Neil Armstrong on the Moon. So this time around, my eyes got a little misty. Pardon me.
But then this thought occurs to me: if Borski is right, and everybody with whom gold is associated is to be understood as a relative of Severian's, does this mean we're to take Severian as a descendant of Armstrong's?
Of course, does it matter? Probably not. It's just interesting. Or not. At any rate, because Rudesind was telling a Vodalus story to some armigers (the class below exultants, aspiring to better but never getting the respect the exultants do and resentful of this), after the armigers leave, Severian tries to steer the conversation toward his hero, only to be disappointed when Rudesind has little to tell him beyond some wry observations about what's likely in store for Vodalus if Severian and his Guild ever get their hands on him. Rudesind then hustles Severian on his way to Master Ultan of the archivists, to whom Severian is supposed to bring a message from one of his own Masters.
And thus endeth Chapter the Fifth!
*Now that I know Alastair Reynolds is a New Sun fanboi, I can't help but enjoy imagining the giant lighthugging spaceship, Nostalgia for Infinity, which winds up spending a span of its life on a planet being used as a vast building, as a sort of homage to the Matachin Tower and the Citadel as a whole.
**Okay, either she's a rebel or she's in for the d'oh moment of all d'oh moments when she realizes later on who she saved. If she realizes it, which, I don't remember if she does because I don't have a "perfect" memory like Severian.
***Or maybe on Green Lune, who knows? Anyway, their great height is apparently genetic, so it's not like a single generation lived on the moon or someplace and came back; they represent almost an instance of speciation if they are returnees from the diaspora to outer space but it's unknown if their height is something that might be bred out of them since we don't know how mobile the classes are (but all signs point to "not very"). Severian tells us that, since the members of his Guild are only taken from the children of dead "clients" lots of the boys imagine themselves to be the children of exultants (no one ever imagines he's descended from stable-mucker types if he or she gets to imagine, just like no one who believes in reincarnation was ever a dung collector in his previous life; he was always Julius Caesar or somebody), but then wouldn't there be a lot of tall torturers around? As it is, people mostly seem to hate the exultants because they support the Autarch; look elsewhere for leadership of any overthrow movements. Except maybe not!
****Whose name, as far as I can tell, refers to the Celtic/Bronze Age art motif of three interlocking spirals and now I'm wondering if he appears three times rather than just the two I'm recalling right now, or if there is some other triple-symbolism associated with him that I've just never been smart enough to parse out?