[The Shadow of the Torturer is] not quite science fiction and not quite fantasy. The distinction between science fiction and fantasy is seldom clear even to long-time readers and critics…. Without going far into definition, one might suggest that fantasy appeals to the emotions and science fiction to the intellect. Fantasy asks to be accepted on its own terms; science fiction, in terms of the real world….
Today, in response to the growing popularity of fantasy (at one time publishers thought fantasy didn't sell), as evidenced by the success of Tolkien and Stephen King, much sf is appearing in the guise and emotional stance of fantasy…. [The Shadow of the Torturer takes] place in a galaxy in which humanity has built a far-flung empire among the stars and has subsequently lost much of its power and abilities. But this is only background, and its intellectual relationships play a minor part in the [narrative]…. [It] is only hinted at in The Shadow of the Torturer, which is, however, the first volume of a promised tetralogy, and more galactic background may appear in subsequent volumes….
[Wolfe] has turned to the writing of long, well-textured, colorful science fantasy after an earlier career dedicated mostly to short fiction that was usually difficult, often ambiguous, sometimes obscure, and always skillfully written…. [The] reflections upon the nature of the world and the events that befall [Severian in The Shadow of the Torturer] are the product of a more mature experience and a surer writing hand. That protagonist is a man of principle even though he has been raised in the guild of Torturers. What happens to him in the novel is the result of his adherence to principle, even to the journey he begins to far-off Thrax to become a simple executioner after his expulsion from the guild for giving a knife to a tortured victim he has come to love. Out of such difficult and unpromising beginnings (imagine, if you will, a hero who is a professional torturer!) Wolfe has fashioned the beginnings of a tale….
[The Shadow of the Torturer] may not be science fiction in the Asimovian sense [which appeals to the intellect rather than the emotions], but it is an engrossing narrative and perhaps a book in which wisdom may be found.
James Gunn, "Science Fiction: 'The Shadow of the Torturer'," in Book World—The Washington Post (© 1980, The Washington Post), May 25, 1980, p. 8.