John C. Wright’s latest tome One Bright Star To Guide Them has a great conceptual hook reminiscent of Spielberg’s Hook. The children of a Chronicles of Narnia-esque adventure are all grown-up, and are tasked to defend Britain from the onslaught of the Knight of Ghosts and Shadows. As the publisher’s description says, the story “begins where other fairy tales end.”
Unlike Hook though, there is no familiar fairyland that the reader already knows and adores. Even though the children’s adventure in Vidblain is an allusion to Chronicles of Narnia, we spend a lot of time playing catch-up. Sometimes that’s fun, but other times there’s a lot of exposition jammed into the dialogue that feels unmotivated.
Tommy said, “It must be you! I know it’s you! I remember you from when I was a schoolboy. There was the well behind the ruined wing of Professor Penkirk’s mansion. Bombed during the war, and overgrown with moss, the black windows and spooky walls surrounded the well on three sides, and a broken angel was there. We knew it was a haunted well, we were sure of it. Penny and Richard and Sally and I, all of us were playing there when we found the key…”
Part of the problem is there’s too much good story to try and cram into a novella. This makes the structure feel a little clunky, as most of the action takes place ‘offstage’ and is recounted to the reader second-hand. As a result, some of the immediacy and tension that would otherwise be present is lost in the shuffle. The best parts of the story are told ‘as they happen’, when our hero Tommy enlists the help of his world-weary compatriot Richard and searches for a relic from his previous quest.
As I sit here though, I’m wondering if the structure is intentionally related to the theme, which has to do with the tension between childhood innocence and adult wisdom. Perhaps by hearing the story in piecemeal, Wright is challenging the adult reader to place himself in the position of Sally and Richard as they try to recall the magic of their youth. Either way, the narrative flow had enough stops and starts that it put a halt to the High Noon sense of urgency set-up so well at the beginning, as Tommy searches for aid from his friends.
Those quibbles aside, you can always count on Wright to stir your soul, and no unwieldy structure can hamper his romantic aspirations. There’s a heartbreaking and surprising scene when Tommy confronts Richard that will connect to anybody who has seen a loved one grow into a cold shadow of their former self. The end is also moving, even if part of it (regarding Tybalt) didn’t make much sense to me in terms of the thematics.
In my previous review, I had mentioned Wright’s lovely and palaverous prose. Here his style is stripped down and whimsical in a way that reminded me more of J.K. Rowling than C.S. Lewis, for some inexplicable reason. Wright must be commended for the way he can alter his voice to match the story. City Beyond Time sounds very unlike Tales From The Night Land which sounds very different from The Golden Age.
One Bright Star To Guide Them opens with a quote from 1 Corinthians 13:11:
When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.
But he could just as easily have quoted Ephesians 6:12:
“For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.”
Wright’s fiction (and all great fantasy) allows one to glimpse into the unseen psychomachian battle that takes place within our souls, and gleam an insight, or be stirred to courageous action. One of the great joys of this story is seeing the way Wright peels back the curtain and imagines what lies through the glass darkly.
I just wish there was more of it.
Just like Tommy, in our day-to-day lives we can sometimes forget about the epic, supersubstantial world that overlaps our own. Fantasy reminds the reader of the reality of the spiritual war, and beckons us on the path to The Summer Land, where:
“Winter is unknown, and death never comes, and loss and sorrow have never found those bright shores.”
Rating: 8/10 for talking cats and eel demons.