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▶  More from Fiction Book Reviews Before the Rising Sun
‘In The Recesses of My Mind’
Impressions of Chapter 1 of Gene Wolfe’s Shadow of the Torturer
Reading from pages 9-15 of Shadow and Claw
Resurrection and Death
“It is possible I already had some presentiment of my future. The locked and rusted gate that stood before us, with wisps of river fog threading its spikes like the mountain paths, remains in my mind now as the symbol of my exile. That is why I have begun this account of it with the aftermath of our swim, in which I, the torturer’s apprentice Severian, had so nearly drowned.”
And so an underappreciated masterpiece begins in the ironic fog of understatement.
The three torturer apprentices have been out larking along the river so massive it is known only as Gyoll and seek to sneak back into the precinct of their order through the cemetery. In so doing they cross paths with volunteer cemetery guards of the working class, who guard the graves of their people from the grave robbers of the ghoulish upper class. Separated from his mates, Severian witnesses a battle between three grave-keepers and an “exultant,” a noble grave-robber, a member of a heroic order of counter-culture dissidents who stand against the Autarch.
Severian’s account is littered with asides as to the nature of the human condition, such as:
“Certain mystes aver that the real world has been constructed by the human mind, since our ways are governed by the artificial categories into which we place essentially undifferentiated things, things weaker than our words for them. I understood the principle intuitively that night as I heard the last volunteer swing the gate closed behind us.”
The cemetery is ancient, the walkway paved of whitened bone, the world itself intrusively uncaring as a “flyer” darts in the sky overhead, placing the knives, axes and swords of the players in a long shadow of incongruence. The combat is spare, not atmospheric, but specific and framed within the textured atmospherics of the greater scene.
And so the backward looking ruler of an ancient dying world, considers the throne he has “backed into” from the perspective of his orphaned boyhood as he identified eagerly with those who thought to topple the ruler from his throne, clinging, even in his ultimate exile to such truths as he can recall in the context of his story:
“The would-be sorcerer alone has faith in the efficacy of pure knowledge; rational people know that things act of themselves or not at all.”
Severian concludes his introductory chapter with a statement which takes the mystery and thrill out of the plot and focus’s the reader’s mind on the life journey that brought an orphan to the throne of a world, a world curiously examined by the unlikely ascent of the protagonist upward through its corridors of decay, its chambers of life examined and unexamined, its byways of decency and the shadows of humanity which haunt them given but one narrative breath in which to live.
Diction of Note
-Gyoll, the great river
-mystes, seer
-badelaire, a personal artifact
-oblesque, a cemetery monument
-dholes, a predatory pack animal
-exultant, noble
-amschaspand, an illuminating being
-Terminus Est, Severian’s executioner’s sword
-chalcedony, type of angel
-Autarch, supreme ruler
-asimi, a coin
A Well of Heroes: Two:
Literary Impressions of the Prose and Verse of Robert E. Howard
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riding the nightmare
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menthol rampage
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