The Shadow of the Torturer is the first installment in Gene Wolfe's Book of the New Sun tetralogy - a 'science-fantasy' series.
The books are:
1. Shadow of the Torturer (commonly called Shadow)
2. Claw of the Concilliator (Claw)
3. Sword of the Lictor (Sword)
4. Citadel of the Autarch (Citadel)
Gene Wolfe is one of the most famous sci-fi authors who isn't widely known. He's known as an author's author (Alastair Reynolds, Neil Gaiman, Ursula K. Le Guin, George RR Martin), and decades later his magnum opus (The Book of the New Sun) is sill being discussed, dissected and analyzed by readers and writers everywhere.
The atmosphere is grim, the language is dense and the book moves slowly which only contributes to the reading experience. The story is neither linear nor clear. The Shadow of the Torturer is a sci-fi story hiding under the cloak of fantasy elements, and the series has been compared to Moby Dick, and Ulysses.
The titular carnifex in fuligin.
Severian - the narrator, is an apprentice to a guild of torturers in his home city of Nessus. He falls in love with one of the guild's political prisoners - the aristocratic Thecla, and disgraces himself by helping her commit suicide. Severian is then banished from the guild, exiled from Nessus, given an executioner's sword named Terminus Est and appointed executioner to the distant city of Thrax.
The book then traces his journey from his declining home town to the city of Thrax. Severian's adventures along the way revolve around his adversary's interest in Terminus Est, and another mysterious artefact called the claw of the conciliator, which one of Severian's travelling companion is accused of stealing from a religious order.
'Shadow' is set a million years in the future in the 'dying-earth' sub-genre of science fiction. The sun is fading and Urth has cooled. Daylight is now red, the moon is green, and forests and jungles are in decay.
The language in The Shadow of the Torturer (and in the entire Book of the New Sun) is archaic and dense, with its share of gaps, blind alleys and lies. Severian is an unreliable narrator, despite his early claim to forget nothing. From then on begins a saga that requires a reread because of all the clues, lies, archaic words, misdirection, metaphors, symbolism, mystery, and allusions.
First off - the cover art and the setting leads to towards fantasy, not science fiction. Its so far into the future (the sun is cooling) that the tech in the book is like magic, as the quote goes.
Then there's the sword - Terminus Est, right up there with Excalibur, Ice, Needle, Lightsabers, Green Destiny, Anduril and Conan's Atlantean. Google 'famous swords in fiction' and you'll have to search hard to come up with a website the lists it. But it is a very important part of the series, as apparent from all the cover art.
There's the guild of torturers mentioned above - politely named 'The Order of Seekers for Truth & Penitence' which sounds like something which would fit perfectly in George Orwell's 1984.
The fun begins when you delve deeper into the legend of the book, and realize that old rusting space ships are now makeshift castles, and the toy statue of a man on the moon makes an appearance.
Neil Gaiman has some rules about the book - trust the text he says, then - don't trust the text. He means its not to be taken at surface value, but enjoy it and complete it anyway because that's how Gene Wolfe intended it to be read. Its more of an academic exercise than an escape that fantasy is, though the book is scifi, but everywhere described as fantasy.
Gene Wolfe has made the text difficult to read.
There are semi made-up words. There is the unreliable narrator. There are the archaic words. There are gaps in the narrative. There are easter-eggs that are so easy to miss but make you want to go back and read the book again. Which brings us to the cult following these books have. The mysteries, clues, fantasy elements that are actually sci-fi, references to religion, along with the general difficulty in following the story the first time around make it a challenge. In fact, you haven't read the book till you've read it twice.
There are some things about The Book of the New Sun that you can enjoy without reading them twice, or even once.
1. The cover art. From the Bruce Pennington illustrations to the Folio Society limited editions, its an easily accessible rabbit hole in its own right.
2. The speculation around the books. What's the tech behind the magic? Is Severian Jesus Christ? Is he lying here? Will this word be found in a contemporary dictionary? Or is it one of Gene Wolfe's semi-made-up words with a Latin source?