In Pursuit of Bookish Hell Mode


Part I: Choosing a Difficulty Setting

The Shadow of the Torturer by Gene Wolfe

The book that changed everything.

A few years ago, when my husband (then boyfriend) suggested that we read The Shadow of the Torturer together — and after the first couple of pages we’d already looked up a dozen words — I’d gotten one of my biggest clues about the kind of person he is and how he walks through life.

By that point I was already well aware of two things:

  1. he’s really good at almost everything
  2. he doesn’t like it when he isn’t immediately good at something.

I’m sure you’ve met someone like this — or perhaps you are someone like this. I know I am, and so I can relate to his perfectionism, even if his level of skill is pretty much higher than mine at everything (except for, like, organizing or something, I guess).

What took me a bit longer to finally realize (or perhaps, come to terms with) is that because of this, he constantly seeks challenge. And he doesn’t want just a challenge; he wants The Ultimate Challenge (or something like that).

In essence, he prefers to go through life in HELL MODE.

Hell Mode

(Diablo III) This is is preferred difficulty setting.

Allow me to explain. Hell Mode is a term birthed from the video game industry. Some games allow the player to choose a difficulty setting, often ranging from Easy to Normal to Hard — and beyond. Hell Mode? Well, it’s the Beyond. It’s the far end of the difficulty spectrum, on the I-love-to-torture-myself side of things. As you’re no doubt expecting by now, my husband loves to choose the hardest difficulty setting.

In fact, he’s really good at making things harder for himself than they need to be, just because he enjoys a challenge, and he loves the feeling of overcoming some seemingly insurmountable obstacle. I have to admit that this can be entertaining at times, but it can also cause me a fair bit of anxiety (don’t even ask me about Skyrim).

Normal Mode

(Diablo III) This is my preferred difficulty setting.

While on our travels in Ireland last year, I made this joke about how he always has to choose the most ridiculous combination of options possible: a rogue class (low strength, high dexterity), a two-hander heavy weapon that requires lots of strength (eyeroll), all gear and stats aimed at maximum offense and little-to-no defense or healing capabilities (the healer in me cringes at this, every time). And then? Then he goes out with his level 5 character and tries to take on a level 50 boss. He and his friend nodded vigorously at my description, giggling gleefully at one another, at which point I threw up my hands and left them to their mania.


But here’s the best part: he gets frustrated when his little scheme fails him over and over (while I watch from afar, sighing in frustration). Okay, wait, there’s an even better part: a pretty high percentage of the time, he actually succeeds after a while. It’s ridiculous, but it empowers him.

By now I hope you’re realizing what kind of person I’m living with here.

If it’s not painfully challenging, it’s not worth doing.

Have I digressed enough yet? Yes? Okay, let’s move on.

Part II: The Search for Bookish Hell Mode

Right, on to the part of this that has to do with books. Yes. Shadow of the Torturer. Gene Wolfe. Look, don’t get me wrong: I have thoroughly enjoyed reading this series, and collecting all of the ridiculously archaic words within their pages. (Yes, sometimes I enjoy a little Hell Mode.) It’s one series I will definitely be rereading at some point (hopefully this year). My husband, naturally, wants more books like it.

But here’s the thing. He and I have this knack for choosing the BEST of something and experiencing it first. Then when it’s over, we look for more things like it, but continually come up empty-handed. Like watching Death Note and then trying to find any other anime that compares (although Attack on Titan is finally a contender in this category, years later!).

Gene Wolfe and his Book of the New Sun series? They’re in a league all their own.

At least, as far as I can tell. As we all know, I read a lot of books, and I read about a lot of books. So it was only natural for me to attempt to come to the rescue when my husband began his search for more Wolfe-ish books. This turned out to be way harder than I thought. My husband was specifically looking for books that would challenge his vocabulary. He wanted college-reading-level books, but without the air of English Major snobbery (for example, he DNFed The Master and Margarita).

First, we browsed the bookstore.

This was not really a great option. We spent quite a while looking through all the books on the Science Fiction and Fantasy shelves at our local B&N, and ended up coming home with nothing because he couldn’t find anything that satisfied him at a glance. I tried to do a little research on my phone while we were there, but there wasn’t much, and what I did see — of course — wasn’t at the damn store.

Next, I searched for books at a certain reading level.

I thought I had hit the jackpot when I found this website called Lexile. The site offers reading suggestions based on one’s lexile measure (basically, a reading ability level).

The Mists of Avalon – one of the suggestions I found from

I signed up on the site, adjusted my lexile measures, and even uploaded a few samples of The Shadow of the Torturer to see what level it falls within (which turned out to be lower than I expected).

I created my own list, Books for Fans of Gene Wolfe, and did a custom search, filtering my lexile level, so I could find books to add to my list. Unfortunately, I ran into a couple of problems.

  1. This site is obviously meant for grade school teachers and students (although it does have some college-level stuff).
  2. This site’s book database is not all that vast, and I’m not sure how to improve it.

So, in the end, I came up with seven whole books on my list, six of which I’m all that confident about, one of which is a study of Gene Wolfe’s work. In fact, none of Gene Wolfe’s books are even on there! Hmph. I have a few more issues with the site as well, but we’ll leave those for another time.

Then, I just started searching more broadly.

I came upon a list on Goodreads called Highbrow Fantasy Books, asked my husband how that sounded, and he gave me the nod to look through the list. Almost immediately, I was disappointed, because this list contains books that are obviously not of the Gene Wolfe caliber. No doubt, they’re excellent books; they’re just not what we’re looking for. I’m not really sure what the creator meant by “highbrow” but it obviously was not what we were looking for.

Then I came upon a webpage titled Books for the Wolfe Fan, and here is where I found some actual good suggestions. Rest assured, I looked through every single book on this list, and they met with varying degrees of approval from me and my husband. At this point, I decided it was time to create my own Goodreads list: Books for Fans of Gene Wolfe.

Books for Fans of Gene Wolfe

This list contains books from all of my sources up to this point, complete with some notes and references so I can remember them later. Needless to say, through all that searching and list adding, it still took some time to pinpoint one that was exactly what he was looking for.

Part III: At Last

Nearing my wit’s end, I pulled up one last book on Amazon so I could see a preview of the pages: Time and the Gods by Lord Dunsany. I began to read aloud, to my husband who was busy across the room.

Once when the gods were young and only Their swarthy servant Time was without age, the gods lay sleeping by a broad river upon earth. There in a valley that from all the earth the gods had set apart for Their repose the gods dreamed marble dreams.

What a mouthful. A pause. “How’s this?” I asked him, dubiously. (Surely this was a bit much, right?) “Yeah, it’s good, keep going,” he responded in his typically vague and noncommittal way. I continued, this time adopting a more lofty reading voice, because surely this text required it.

And with domes and pinnacles the dreams arose and stood up proudly between the river and the sky, all shimmering white to the morning. In the city’s midst the gleaming marble of a thousand steps climbed to the citadel where arose four pinnacles beckoning to heaven, and midmost between the pinnacles there stood the dome, vast, as the gods had dreamed it.

Well! It was clear that this Lord Dunsany fellow was not aware of the Oxford comma, or surely he would have employed it! I took a deep breath. My husband nodded approvingly.

Time and the Gods by Lord Dunsany

The winner

“So, you like this one?” I asked, an eyebrow raised.

“Yeah, it’s good.”

“It meets your standard? You want me to get it?”

“Yeah, I like it . You can get it if you want, but you don’t have to.”

“Well, you’re in luck, because this guy’s been dead so long that we can get the ebook version for free. Muahaha! It’s on my Kindle so you can read it whenever.”

He was appreciative and happy.

SUCCESS! At long last.

(This happened 2 months ago. I still don’t think he’s started reading it yet.)

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