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Summary

Severian is a torturer, born to the guild and with an exceptionally promising career ahead of him...until he falls in love with one of his victims, a beautiful young noblewoman. 

Her excruciations are delayed for some months and, out of love, Severian helps her commit suicide and escape her fate. For a torturer, there is no more unforgivable act. In punishment he is exiled from the guild and his home city to the distant metropolis of Thrax with little more than Terminus Est, a fabled sword, to his name. 

Along the way he has to learn to survive in a wider world without the guild - a world in which he has already made both allies and enemies. And a strange gem is about to fall into his possession, which will only make his enemies pursue him with ever-more determination.... 

Winner of the World Fantasy Award for Best Novel, 1981

Winner of the BSFA Award for Best Novel, 1982

©1980 Gene Wolfe (P)2021 Orion Publishing Group

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Narrator ruins the story.

This version is read like a Sherlock Holmes story. It ruins the story completely.

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A classic in any genre

Not many books are as engaging, or more so even, by the third read/listen but this is one of them. It is frustrating that Gene Wolfe, and this series in particular, is not better known, as in my view this is a masterpiece in any genre, and on the same level as Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy in terms of the unique writing style and incredible world-building, although both are very different.

Anyone expecting a simple action-packed space opera may be disappointed but this book still feels gripping and includes incredible almost hallucinatory scenes and images that stay with you, from Severian being saved by a giant woman underwater to a dual in which the combatants use the deadly leaves of an alien tree as weapons.

The use of obscure words, without clear descriptions about what a particular thing is, actually works incredibly well to conjure up a world so far in the future that it feels ancient and advanced all at once. This, when coupled with Severian’s not entirely trustworthy account of his life, in which nothing is quite what it seems and you question his repeated boast/complaint that he forgets nothing, means that you notice new details and perspectives on each read.

If you typically like fantasy but not sci-fi books, or visa versa, this book will still appeal to you. The narration is very engaging, enhancing the detached and otherworldly style of Severian’s account and giving each character a distinctive voice. Each instalment of the series is excellent and it is one of those series that you wish could be adapted as films or tv but you know that it would be extremely difficult to pull off. The closet comparison may be the classic computer game Planescape: Torment, if for no other reason than they both feel so distinctive and feature a group of amoral protagonists in worlds where science and magic are indistinguishable.

Hopefully they will produce more Gene Wolfe audiobooks, including his Soldier of the Mist series, which is a brilliant take on the world of ancient Greece and Egypt through the eyes of an amnesiac soldier who can see and talk to gods and other mythical creatures.

Anyway, give it a go!