This is a review of: “One Bright Star To Guide Them”, John C. Wright, Castalia House
I should admit at the onset that I may have been reading this book wrong. I absolutely hated this book for its many glaring defects, and even its overall tone. However, the Hugo award voting fans may not be the proper audience for this material, and so I may be judging this more harshly than I should if I were asking the broader question; “Would anyone care to read this offal?”. I think the actual answer to that question is “yes”. Let me explain before I go on to the less accommodating portions of this review.
When she was much younger AOD discovered the prolific writings of Robert L. Stine and Mary P. Osborne. She read so many so quickly that I would have worried about her capacity for comprehension had she not so willingly recounted every element of the story in incredibly excruciating detail. When she moved on to the books of Joanne K. Rowling, Clive S. Lewis, and Philip Pullman in the second grade she never really picked up another of the Stine or Osborne books. She had amassed a banker’s box or more of each, and her sister went through most of them before they were donated to the greater good. However bad I may have thought those books were, However harshly I would have reviewed them if they were up for a Hugo, however happy I was to finally hand them off en masse to the fellow at the thrift store, the fact remains that they were critically useful -almost invaluable- in the development of functional literacy in my family. I cannot thank Osborne and Stine enough for what they have done, and they deserve, and have won, awards, but not a Hugo.
Young adult (YA) fiction has a long history of recognition at the Hugos. The iconic “Have Spacesuit -- Will Travel” was nominated for a Best Novel Hugo in 1959 (the first year the Hugo trophy was the now iconic rocket); it did not win. “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire” won the 2001 Hugo award for Best Novel. Some people have told me that “science fiction and fantasy is young adult fiction”; they are wrong, but there is an undeniable place for YA in SF, and at the Hugos.
One of the major challenges in writing good YA literature is not making the readers feel that you think they are stupid even though you know that so many young adults really are stupid. I don’t remember meeting John C. Wright (I may have, but I just don’t remember him), but I get the feeling he thinks I am stupid for buying his book. I can picture him taunting me with a “You own it now, Sucker!”.
It should come as no surprise that I find a book that thinks I am stupid for reading it rather awful. By the time I get done with exploring three major areas where this book fails it will have only earned 3 stars (out of 10).
The story stumbles drunkenly for several pages before the 40-year-old protagonist named “Tommy” lets off a prayer to St George and then accidentally finds a magic key around the neck of a talking black cat who was hanging out under a small rosebush. When Tommy touches the key he remembers an incredible collection of fantastical childhood adventures [“Tommy stooped and picked up the silver key. “I remember now,” he said.”]. It turns out that Tommy knows the cat, named "Tybert" like the prince of cats in the Reynard the fox stories (Was Wright’s inspiration the anti-Semitic "Van den vos Reynaerde" published in 1941?). Tybert gives Tommy a summons to adventure (“The lords of the Faerie summon you”) and then…. A little happens, but not really that much:
- Chapter 1 - Tommy talks to a cat while drunk
- Chapter 2 – Tommy talks to an old friend
- Chapter 3 – Tommy talks to three other former friends, they have a minor scuffle, and then Tommy decides NOT to jump out a window.
- Chapter 4 – Tommy talks to another old friend about all the stuff that happened after Chapter 3, and before chapter 4.
- Chapter 5 – Tommy reads a magic book near the grave of another old friend.
- Chapter 6 – Tommy steals a sword, and meets the knight of shadows. Tommy kills Tybalt the cat because Tybalt asks him to, and then reads the name “Phobos” on a page of a magic book that fell open on the floor, and that turns the sword on which turns the knight of shadows into a cloud. Then Tommy breaks the sword, and this dispels the knight of shadows.
- Chapter 7 – Tybalt comes back as super-cat, and Tommy becomes a “wise old man” to help hypothetical new kids go on fabulous adventures.
Despite the fact that very little happens “on stage” in the book the characters talk about a whole lot of stuff happening. They really talk about several novels worth of stuff happening. Think of what a good author could do with an action scene like this:
“Then his marines came into the cabin, weapons ready, wearing the mark of the Evil Eye on their brows. But I released the Knight of Shadows, opened the door of the plane, and leaped from it. The suction whirled the enemy, screaming, out into the night sky with me. Tybalt, you see, had taught me a charm to allow me to land on my feet without hurt, no matter how high the fall.”Wright turns this action into a grocery list.
Tybalt also teaches Tommy to climb like a cat and see in the dark. We know this because Wright says so in the beginning of a sentence where Tommy informs the reader that he “scaled the wall at night”. Remember that the above action sequences are only snippets of conversation; the above taking place in a room that would be at home on the set of Tennessee Williams’s “The Glass Menagerie”. Wright should get at least one star for effectively describing the scenes where all of his action fails to take place.
Much of the action is not conveyed in the style of a tweenager recounting a ninja action movie. In fact most of it uses an even more annoying “badly translated children’s book style, like this: “The perfume of the Forever Tree drove them away, past Mount Whitecrown, and into the lifeless wasteland.”. I should point out that the readers never get to gaze into the lifeless wasteland, see or visit Mount Whitecrown, or find out much about the Forever Tree; like why it is “Forever” or what type of tree it is.
Tree species are apparently important in Wright’s world, and it looks like that trips him up a bit. In one recounted passage generic tree-women sound like great things to have around.
“I remember the feast on the fields of Caer Linden, and how the tree-women came out of the forests to dance, while the faerie-folk danced in the air overhead, held up by the joy of their singing alone.”
And in another snippet of conversation a particular species of tree-woman is decidedly unwanted.
“The willow woman drew the sigils and Runes of Ice upon the blackboard, and made the children chant the worm song to ensorcell them.”
Perhaps the willow-woman was a bush willow, and we are supposed to know that bushes are bad and trees are good. Of course this is not really important information since we don’t interact with any tree-people, whether they be tree-men, or tree-women, or the tree-hermaphrodites we would expect most trees that are not gymnosperms to be.
Mount Whitecrown and the lifeless wasteland are not the only places that exist in this story only as names. We have “Caer Lindon”, and “Caer Pendewen”, and “Gloomshadow Forest”, and etc... Names sprinkled around to make it sound like we are reading something with context, but we are not.
Although Wright is happy with the idea of inventing minor place names to create context, he relies on developed mythology to create his overarching context. The name of the fantasy realm is Niblain, which is a realm related to the Norse cannon. He names the Shadow knight “Phobos” from Greek mythology. He introduces Melusine from European mythology, and does so in an interesting way.
“I would be more surprised if I had not seen the hex written into your corporate logo. Yes, I saw the witch-writing there. That is Melusine, is it not? The sea-queen, whose legs are two sea serpents. The Widow of the Waters, who promises wealth and dignities to those who slay the innocents for her.”
The most famous real corporate logo that contains Melusine is that of Starbucks. The Starbucks logo has been associated with evil by a crusade of righteous anti-gay-rights crusaders who organized a “Dump Starbucks" campaign to protest the company’s support of providing spousal benefits to the same-sex couples where one partner is employed by them. In this story it is kind of a fun way of identifying the Starbucks logo. He gets another star for his attempts at creating an inclusive atmosphere, but especially for this Starbucks nod.
One might get the impression, from what I’ve reviewed so far, that this is a children’s book, and not a YA novella. Even if Wright does not stray from the atmosphere and plot of a children’s book he does stray a bit in some –probably unnecessary- thematic elements.
In the second chapter Tommy comes into Richard’s (one of Tommy’s childhood adventure pals) office to discuss what Richard has been up to. He is hoping that there will be some explanation for a self-cutting emo gang rape of a 16-year old girl. Somehow Tommy has pieced together from “hearing” and newspapers that there was an incident that involved Richard and a group of his friends cutting themselves while raping a young girl, and something to do with the hanging corpse of a dead goat. Tommy is hoping that the dead goat does not mean that this is some evil ritual. Tommy is only really shocked when he finds out that the girl had an abortion paid for by the National Health Service.
Though he does get off a couple interesting phrases, like “priapic manifestations of the life energy”, he quickly devolves back into the rambling children’s book tone before even finishing up with the rape explanation.
“It was not a goat we found dangling over the waters of the Venom River, but a faun, our faun, old Mister Merryhoof. The one who fed us our Lady’s Day Feast.”
I think the above quote really gets to the heart of my biggest problem with this story. Two forty-year-old educated men without significant brain damage are discussing the gang rape of a 16-year old girl, and one of them seriously uses "old Mister Merryhoof" in a sentence. All we ever really know about Old Mister Marryhoof comes from this sentence. He is a Catholic faun (because he coordinates the Feast of the Annunciation ritual for little boys and girls). Fauns have been used by authors as a symbolic embodiment of unbridled sexuality for centuries, and the insertion of one into a conversation about child rape is in questionable taste. However, in 2014, Catholics are often significant subjects in discussions about child rape. It is just a bad tone; icky even.
I do think I will keep “priapic” tucked away as a useful synonym for penis. I will wait for the right moment and whip it out and show it to people.
This story is basically a children’s book, and not a children’s book I would have read to or given to my kids when they were at the age appropriate for most of its story. There are awards for children’s stories, and I do not really feel equipped to properly review a children’s story for a Hugo. I will give this story another star as a handicap for this.