Just finished reading the first four books. What follows is a first read impression colored by interpretations by Wright and Aramini here and there:
Yeah, it's kinda everything you've heard about it: A puzzle, a religious allegory, a masterpiece, a prank. Some of the religious imagery is immediately apparent. For instance, Typhon tempting Severian with world power in exchange for an oath of allegiance comes straight from the gospel when Jesus is tempted by Satan in the desert with a similar bargain. Others are not so obvious. His friends, Drotte, Roche, Eata, Thecla, Dorcas as well as most major characters, Vodalus, Jolenta etc. are all saint names. These as well as the arcane vocabulary are invitations to the reader to read deeply and explore. This is one of Wolfe's main goals--to get you to stop and think about what you're reading. Yes you can enjoy the read not knowing any saints names. But to the beach reader interested only in a lazy summertime read without much engagement, BotNS may leave you unsatisfied. In fact, even with a deep read I'm left wondering to some extent "what the hell did I just read?" Again, this is Wolfe's intent.
To dig deep is to embrace the murky. All through the four books I thought, "I don't get (blank--whether "blank" is Baldanders and Talos or the Autarch, or the Sanguinary Field duel) but what I'm reading has a deeper meaning." Severian is clearly a Christ figure. He resurrects the dead, is tempted by a Satan, endures suffering, and by the end of the read clearly is meant to lift humanity up from a cruel existence. But also, by the end, you wonder what is his motivation? Is he a Christ/hero, successful through his own efforts (aided by God), or is he merely a pawn in a game set in motion by aliens with their own goals and motivations making Severian the recipient of good luck instead of rewards through personal effort and Divine Intervention? This flies in the face of Campbellian/Jungian analysis. And this too is a major goal of Wolfe--to break the mold and formula of what we call "good fiction."
Campbell illuminated the hero's quest via Jung. And from that we get cookie cutter heroes from Hercules to Luke Skywalker and everyone in between. Wolfe breaks these Jungian rules to the enjoyment of the reader. And this more than anything points to Wolfe's genius. He knows the rules of good writing. And he knows how to break them while keeping us reading and wanting more.
I don't pretend to know every allegory and inference Wolfe makes. And this too, I think, is his intent. While the biblical and classical scholar will understand many of them I think he leads the reader down many dead ends. But these dead ends are no disappointment--they are, in fact, new story elements disguised perhaps as writer's pranks. This too is his intent. After all, not every effort a hero makes is successful and rewarded. A hero (and a reader) experiences dead ends too.
But are these pranks real, or are they the product of a reader's ignorance to the larger world of literature? Again, this is Wolfe's invitation to deep reading. He invites you to reread and enjoy again perhaps with a deeper understanding this time. As for me, for now, I'll continue on with Urth of the New Sun and further analysis and interpretation of the Solar Cycle. I may come back to Book of the New Sun later. Maybe I'll see something new and Urth shattering.