One Bright Star to Guide Them
John C. Wright
Category: Best Novella
This is a story about what happens to the children from The Chronicles of Narnia after they’ve grown up. Not literally: John C. Wright has created his own Narnia pastiche rather than lift from C. S. Lewis directly, but the reference is clear. I don’t have any objection to this in principle—I really enjoyed it when Lev Grossman did the same thing for the Magicians trilogy. (This novella is an unfortunate reminder that The Magician’s Land would have been a more worthy entry on the Best Novel ballot than some of what was actually nominated.)
Anyway, in Wright’s version the Narnia kids have gone on to live normal lives in the real world and have reached middle age. The main character, Tommy, is working in finance and has just received a promotion when the local Aslan equivalent shows up with a new call to adventure. After some hesitation he accepts and sets about tracking down his childhood companions. He finds that they have variously become (a) a mustache-twirling villain (an early hint he’s evil is that he likes modern art); (b) an apparently normal and well-adjusted woman who is branded a coward by Fake Aslan for not wanting to drop everything in her life to go on adventures at age 46; and (c) dead. At the end Tommy faces off against the Big Bad alone, but is able to defeat him by sacrificing a black cat to perform a rite of death magic. (I am not making this up, although admittedly the book frames it slightly differently.)
In my previous review I didn’t really emphasize the way “Flow” promoted curiosity as a positive trait, because who’s against curiosity? John C. Wright is, apparently, because the message of this book is don’t ask questions! Believe what you’re told no matter how illogical or fantastical! Fake Aslan delivers a revealing line while ordering Tommy to do something that makes no sense, without explanation: “It is not the stalwart soldiers of the Sons of Light who question orders, Little Tommy, but willful children.” In a different chapter, a letter from the deceased member of the original foursome exhorts Tommy to “NEVER DOUBT THAT WHAT YOU DO IS RIGHT.” (I think that one might be John C. Wright’s personal motto.) Hard to see how anything could go wrong with those attitudes!
Wright keeps the Christian allegorical elements of Lewis’ original intact, and thus it seems that the message is not to question the Bible stories one was told as a child, before developing critical faculties. Most people follow the religion they were born into, which suggests that they aren’t picking them based on evidence, but Wright doesn’t want you to think about the coincidence that you happened to learn the true religion as a child. Just follow orders!
Stepping away from the subtext and back to the text, Wright is actually a fairly competent writer but he needs a better editor than Vox Day. The dialogue in this book is hilariously overwrought—it’s possible he’s trying for a high fantasy cadence, but he goes way too far into who talks like that? territory. Particularly since these characters are supposed to have been living in the modern world for forty years—Tommy talks like Prince Valiant even when he’s still in banker mode. On top of that Wright is too fond of his ersatz Narnia, and spends long paragraphs having his characters recount their past adventures to each other when they were, in fact, all there to experience it and don’t need a recap. This really made me miss The Magicians, where the characters talk like normal people and the fictional history is only tantalizingly hinted at.
In another difference from The Magicians—and also from Narnia!—this wasn’t even fun to read. Maybe that’s part of the point, that the (religious) fantasies of one’s childhood are both real and deadly serious in adulthood. But it doesn’t make for an enjoyable story. John C. Wright has written three out of the five novella nominees. (Remember, the Puppies are all about more diversity on the Hugo ballot!) This is not off to a good start.