It has been suggested that The Book Of The New Sun series is too complex a work to evaluate on one reading. First of all, I don't necessarily believe that and secondly, I have a two kids, a full-time job and a band, and I'm also not the quickest reader. As it seems that I'll probably never get to read all the books I'd like to in my lifetime, one read-through is going to have to suffice, at least for now. I'd love to re-read it someday, though, and if any series deserves a re-read, it's this one.
For the sake of clarity (if such a thing is truly achievable with a work like this one) I'm going to separate my review of this book into its two component novels.
The Shadow Of The Torturer: Having read an article written by Neil Gaiman about Gene Wolfe, I went into this book knowing that Wolfe often employs unreliable narrators in his fiction and that readers must be wary in order to more fully catch Wolfe's gist, and yet I was still caught off-guard. The main character in this series is Severian, an apprentice torturer who becomes a disgraced journeyman early on in this first part of the series, and who is blessed/cursed with an eidetic (photographic) memory. It is his eidetic memory which serves to alert the reader to the first layer of unreliability in Severian, as a moderately attentive reader can catch Severian lying. Once/if the reader allows themselves to read this story more cautiously and critically, the reader begins to question whether anything Severian says can truly be trusted, and this, I believe, is what Wolfe was truly aiming for. Although it does make reading the story a more exhausting experience than that of reading other more conventional novels, I personally found this quality in particular to be one which gave me a high degree of satisfaction and which also increased my interest in and enjoyment of The Book. Anyway, in Shadow there really isn't a lot of plot (if you were to ignore the interpretive aspects of the story). Severian, a Christ-figure, gets sent out on the road by his guild and by the end of Shadow, is only just making it to the outskirts of the city Nessus. However, he has by this time already met most of the key players in what will be his epic adventure, as well as found the legendary Claw Of The Conciliator, an artifact with reputedly magical properties (whether it actually has said properties is an entirely other matter).
The Claw Of The Conciliator: Inexplicably glossing over events which were about to occur at the end of Shadow, Severian picks up the story in a town outside of the city of Nessus. Claw is a lot more eventful than Shadow, in my opinion, and also gives the reader many more puzzles to speculate upon, such as the identity and true nature of the green man, the powers (or lack thereof) of the titular Claw, the presence of cyborgs/androids and aliens on Urth, the metafictional aspects of Dr. Talos' play, the true motives of the Autarch, and so on, and so on. Wolfe also really steps up his use of archaisms, which I, as a word-nerd, love (one of my favourites from this book is apotropaic). Severian, in this book, also moves beyond being a typical testosterone-laden young lad (although he still retains that trait as a part of his dominant Severian-self) with his absorbtion of Thecla's personality and memories. This, while on the surface giving Severian more insight into certain aspects of his world, in actuality further calls into question not only Severian's reliability as a source of factual information but also objectivity itself (namely, whether such a thing is even possible).
In closing, I thought this book was fantastic and challenging, although I would most certainly not recommend it to most people. Sadly, the majority of people I know would have absolutely no interest in tackling such a tricksy and multifaceted piece of fiction as this one, or if they did would most likely not be willing to engage it on the level that it requires and truly deserves.