May 17th, 2015

The Hugo Ballot, Part 10: Novellas

We've made it to the Novellas!  (Halfway through!)  Coming up, three John C. Wright stories in a row.  I'm not doing these in the order on the ballot but in the order the download came in, because that's the way I read them.

First up, "One Bright Star to Guide Them."  When Tommy was a child he and his friends Richard, Sally, and Penny had adventures very similar to the ones in the Narnia books, where they "faced the Faceless Warlock, and broke the Black Mirror of the Winter King."  ("…faced the Faceless Warrior," incidentally, is pretty awkward.  How do you face something that doesn't have a face?)  We don't get to see any of these adventures, unfortunately.  Instead we start when Tommy's over forty and is reunited with the cat who had accompanied him and the other children.  The Winter King has returned, says the cat, Tybalt, and Tommy is needed once again.

Tommy goes to his old friend Richard but discovers that Richard now serves the Winter King.  There's a battle with the king's servants, and at the chapter's end "the smell of the sea filled his nose, and Tommy could neither see nor breathe."

We don't get to see what happens next, either.  Instead, unbelievably, the next chapter starts with Tommy meeting another of his old friends, Sally, and telling her what had happened.  It's as if someone had taken an entire book, cut out all the interesting parts, and published the rest.  (Amusingly, in "John C. Wright's Patented One-Session Lesson in the Mechanics of Fiction," included with Wright's stories, he stresses the importance of "showing, not telling" to the narrative.)

Gradually, though, the story grinds to a start.  It becomes the usual fantasy quest: Tommy has to go various places, do various things, collect various objects.

There are more problems than just the lifeless nature of the narrative, though.  For one thing, we're inundated with mythic folderol.  "You followed the clues and found the Shining Sword trapped in the roots of the Cursed Black Oak in the middle of Gloomshadow Forest, where none of the Fair Folk could go.  The wolf boy helped you…"  None of this ever coalesces into a coherent system; it's all just names: the ships of Lemmergeir, the Tall White Tower of Noss, the Crystal Cup of Vision.  They end up blurring together; it they have any incantatory power at all it's to put the reader to sleep.

At the end the cat Tybalt urges Tommy to kill him.  Tommy resists but finally gives in, and the cat is reborn as something like a panther or tiger or lion, but bigger and with wings.  (We don't get a terribly clear description.)  At this point, for me, the story stops being an homage to the Narnia books, or speculation about what would happen to the kids if they grew up, and moves perilously close to plagiarism.  Though I don't remember the Pevensie children actually killing Aslan, and the theology of doing such a thing is more than I can figure out.

In addition to the homage (or whatever) to C.S. Lewis, there seems to be a hint of G.K. Chesterton in this story.  At the beginning Wright seems to try for Chesterton's wise, wide-souled view of the world, his ability to see the strange and magical in the familiar.  But as the story continues, as nearly everyone Tommy meets turns out to be associated with the Winter King or other evil forces, the mood turns bad-tempered, sour.  Hey, if everyone I met showed the mark of Evil Eye or turned into a hideous monster, I'd be surly too.  It's a pretty grim and unhappy way to look at the world, and it makes for a grim and unhappy story.