Book eight of a twelve book series if you count the later prequels, but book one in a four taken in publication order, this book throws you right in the deep end immediately. The language in this novel is archaic and esoteric feeling, and Gene Wolfe plays at the pretense that he is merely a translator of some sort of foreign tongue in an foreign land. This fantasy novel begins with Severian sneaking into a Necropolis, being chased, and earning his way into the ranks of journeymen torturers, a specialized guild that trains inquisitors and executioners, a kind of necessary evil and pariah of this ancient society, imbued with grave, exalted, and terrifying responsibilities. He’s tasked with performing the punishments of law and when he falls in love with one prisoner and uses those feelings to build compassion for another, helping her to commit suicide, instead of the painful, dragged out death of her sentence, he is cast out. Then begins the first of the long journey that will apparently play out in the next three-five books and maybe wrap back around for four more earlier.
This book is a lot to ask of a reader at times. The world is opaque, as is the language, and most interestingly, we are asked to follow a protagonist whose job would have made him the villain or henchman of another book. Instead he is treated as an institutional figure and not one who’s immediately wakening to his dreadful life. So far this isn’t a book about someone coming to terms with the horrifying life they’ve lived…he’s still just living it. It’s worthwhile for that reason alone. It’s also tasking, so I will put the series away for a bit I think.