Castalia House, 2014, 61 pages
As children, long ago, Tommy Robertson and his three friends, Penny, Sally, and Richard, passed through a secret gate in a ruined garden and found themselves in an elfin land, where they aided a brave prince against the evil forces of the Winter King. Decades later, successful, stout, and settled in his ways, Tommy is long parted from his childhood friends, and their magical adventures are but a half-buried memory.
But on the very eve of his promotion to London, a silver key and a coal-black cat appear from the past, and Tommy finds himself summoned to serve as England's champion against the invincible Knight of Ghosts and Shadows. The terror and wonder of Faerie has broken into the Green and Pleasant Land, and he alone has been given the eyes to see it. To gather his companions and their relics is his quest, but age and time have changed them too. Like Tommy, they are more worldly-wise, and more fearful. And evil things from childhood stories grow older and darker and more frightening with the passing of the years.
The "portal fantasy" is a venerable classic subgenre of children's fantasy. From Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan to The Chronicles of Narnia and Harry Potter, the reason they have always been popular with children, and with adults who remember being children, is that even the happiest child sometimes dreams of being able to step through a magic portal into another world. Even better if you get to be a hero there.
One Bright Star to Guide Them is not coy about its inspiration — when you've got a lion right there on the cover, it's pretty obvious whose serial numbers are being filed off here. At first glance, it's a sort of adult wish-fulfillment; if you'd been to a magical world and had epic adventures as a child, wouldn't you want to go back? Wouldn't spending the rest of your life in a mundane world full of taxes and mortgages and performance evaluations feel like something is missing?
The protagonist, Tommy, was one of four children who had such adventures. Now he's in his early 40s, unmarried, having climbed his way up to the august ranks of middle management, and clearly quite ready to be led away on another magical adventure, even if he's initially resistant when Tybalt, the Prince of Cats, shows up.
“I can't just up and leave. I have a job; I have rent to pay. But, see here, you've picked a good time. In a week or so I'll be ready to move; the company might give me some days off, and then I can schedule in some time to go fight this knight of shadows, and…”
Tommy straightened, blinking. What was he saying? Schedule a time to fight the knight of shadows? “Tybalt,” he said slowly, “I'm not a child any more. It's been thirty years since we went to Vidblain, faced the Faceless Warlock, and broke the Black Mirror of the Winter King. It's been three decades since we restored Prince Hal to his throne at Caer Pendewen. You can't just order me around like a schoolboy anymore. I'll help you, yes, certainly. But I can't just go shooting off into the blue. I have a life. I have responsibilities. If I just disappear in the middle of the night, I'll be sacked, and have no job, no place to stay, no future.”
The black cat turned and slipped off down the stairs. Then the cat was in the street, and beginning to slink away, a black shadow disappearing into the night.
For a moment, Tommy calmly watched him go. Then, in spite of himself, he was suddenly leaping down the stairs, crying, “Tybalt, wait! Don't leave me! I'll come! I'll come with you!”
This is a story that really tries to resonate with those of us who had those childhoods in which we dreamed of going off to magical lands to fight the Knight of Shadows. It conjures up the juvenile whimsy present in all such stories, but it also invokes the settling of adulthood onto the former child, the burden of Real Life and how, as unimaginable as it may seem to a child, it can crush those memories of wonder out of you. If you'd gone to a magical land, fought witches and ogres, and become a king or queen, would you really just forget about it or dismiss it all as a make-believe game you played as children, as Susan Pevensie did?
Having heeded the call to adventure, Tommy seeks out his former friends, and finds that adulthood has settled on them too, and not well. He is greeted with betrayal, refusal, and fear, and ends up being entirely on his own, but for Tybalt.
I haven't read any of John C. Wright's novels, but I've read several of his short stories and novellas, and he is a literary craftsman with an expansive, sometimes too expansive, vocabulary. (He's one of the few authors who sometimes makes me actually use the dictionary function on my ereader.) One Bright Star to Guide Them, in my opinion, actually suffers a little from his elevated prose, as while it's clearly an adult story, it's trying to capture the flavor of the children's stories it's built upon and sometimes overshoots the mark. More problematically, because this novella tries to recap everything that happened before while compacting all of Tommy's adult adventures into about 60 pages, many of Tommy's feats are simply described as action that happened off the pages, between chapters. And there is a lot of narration like this:
Tommy's smile slowly vanished. “Why…why…it's Tybalt! You must remember him! You remember the summer we found the Well of the Nine Worlds. Remember? I held up the key and Penny said the rhyme she'd found in the old book of Professor Penkirk's. 'One brave soul to hold the key', don't you remember the rhyme? The rainbow came in the mist above the well, and we followed it to Vidblain, and then we saw the ships of Lemmergeir sailing in the tide below the Tall White Tower of Noss. We saw the swan-ships sailing from the Western Sea, from the Summer Country. You remember, Richard, of course you do! I used the key to enter the tower of the Faceless Warlock. We rescued his apprentice, Kicktoad, and he showed us the riddle written on the silent stone hidden below the tower. It was you who solved the riddle, Richard! You must remember that!”
The problem here is that this would be fine for refreshing the reader's memory of what happened in previous books, but in this case, there was no previous book; the reader has never read about Tommy and Richard and Penny and Sally's adventures in Vidblain, the Well of the Nine Worlds, the Tall White Tower of Noss, or the Faceless Warlock. So when there is paragraph after paragraph like this, in which Tommy monologues about the Wisest Centaur and the Fog of Slumber and Donnergarm son of Monagarm, it feels as if the author is trying too hard to create a world that may exist vividly in his own mind but is nothing more than a collection of fantasy names in the reader's. Less would have been more; on the assumption that we've all read Narnia or similar books, a lot less stuffing of fictional backstory into this novella would have served.
While this may diminish One Bright Star to Guide Them slightly in my estimation compared to Wright's other stories, it's still an affecting tale that appeals to who it's meant to appeal to: adults who still have a little bit of that want-to-go-to-Narnia spark inside them. Tommy's new adventures are juvenile in the assortment of magical artifacts and storybook foes he faces, but he does have to make more adult decisions, and suffers more from adult indecision and doubt.
One Bright Star to Guide Them isn't so much a "grown-up" Narnia, nor a subversion, like Lev Grossman's The Magicians, but an affectionate tribute. It also duplicates Lewis's Christian allegory, though in my opinion, Wright actually does a better job of making the theme obvious without hitting you over the head with a Sunday School sermon.
Verdict: While the author's prolixity at times clashed with the compressed worldbuilding and abbreviated story, One Bright Star to Guide Them skillfully bridges the gap between children's and adult fiction, and will certainly appeal to anyone who has fond memories of being transported to another world, and then wondered what happened when those kids grew up. 7/10.
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