First off: Some spoilers, but I’ll try and give up as little as I can. Now:
TL;DR review: After reading the BRILLIANT “City Beyond Time”, and being a huge Lewis fanboy, I found “One Bright Star to Guide Them” disappointing, though still good.
Long review: It was with surprise and delight that I noticed Vox announce the publication of “One Bright Star to Guide Them”, John C. Wright’s new book. He plugged it like this:
It is a beautiful novella in which Mr. Wright once more proves himself to be the Master of the Final Word; in all my reading I have yet to discover an author who is more accomplished at writing elegant, perfectly-fitting endings that leave the reader in breathless awe…If you are a fan of John C. Wright or C.S. Lewis, this is one novella you simply will not want to miss.
So you can see why I bought it almost immediately and devoured it hungrily like a ravenous hyena.
And my thoughts?
I was honestly a little…disappointed.
A large part of the wonder of sci-fi and fantasy is the incredible imagination and world-building involved in the stories and novels. “City Beyond Time” took place in a strange, amazing world of historical figures grouped together in a glistening utopia with a dark underbelly and watched over by a private eye quite literally lifted directly from 30’s noir. The logistics of time travel were probed and investigated in fascinating ways in each story, and nothing was ever as I expected. I can recall fewer reveals in literature that worked more effectively than Wright’s reveal of the identity of his detective’s client. Put all of that together with the fact that Wright is an excellent prose writer and you have one of the best time travel collections ever written, an absolute masterpiece.
“One Bright Star to Guide Them”, by contrast, was hampered by what it was trying to do. Wright’s basic conceit was “What if the Pevensie kids were found again after they turned middle aged and asked to fight evil in modern Britain?” Sure, the characters and world aren’t EXACTLY the same as the Narnia books, but it was obvious he was trying to draw that comparison. This is fine fanfiction, but it allows for little in the way of clever world-building, one of Wright’s biggest strengths. And that’s a damn shame.
The plot wasn’t exactly generic, but it wasn’t particularly creative either. I never knew exactly what was going to happen next, but I did know that it would involve him finding the sword re-forged (we’re ALL looking at you, Aragorn) and having to figure out a way to prove himself worthy to use it. And I knew he’d have to try and recruit the other (former) children in order to try and get their help as well as get their amazing macguffins.
There is nothing wrong with any of this. Predictable, simple plots are not necessarily bad; the devil is, after all, in the details. I have made the point a couple of times that I think that “Portal” has one of the best video game stories of all time despite the entire thing basically being “Prison Escape”. But Wright constrains himself too much. He tries to be C.S. Lewis, and he succeeds perhaps better than anybody else would, but at the expense of himself. There’s no creative world-building, nowhere for his grand imagination to truly stretch, and none of the characters are anywhere near as memorable as Detective Frontino from CBT.
And the problem, too, is that the whole point of the story is to use Lewis’s basic style to explore a new point not touched upon in the Narnia books; namely, childhood will end one day, and the adult world has its own battles. But did he really need to ape Lewis to make this point? It’s not like I don’t hear it often. Neil Gaiman’s “The Ocean at the End of the Lane” is quite similar to this story, and makes much the same point (“We’ll all grow up one day, and then we’ll have different responsibilities”). Now, the stories are not the same. But there’s a similarity in style there that made me pause and think to myself, however briefly, Isn’t this message a little stale by now? And part of the problem was that I could see it was driving towards that point just by reading the summary blurb. That’s too bad. I was hoping Wright would subvert my expectations.
And finally, a quick word on the ending, because Vox specifically touted it as being “elegant and perfectly fitting”: It’s not. It relies on a deus ex machina and a predictable twist, introduces an Aslan-like lion beast, then sends our hero off into the world as a mentor. This is a good ending. It worked well. But it wasn’t particularly elegant, relying on events that didn’t really seem particularly clever. They just felt inevitable.
Now, inevitable can work when you build the story around the climactic moment, making it the focal point and having everything that occurs in the story previously build up to it in some way. I made the point that the ending of “His Last Vow” had an air of inevitability to it, and my point was meant to be complimentary. But this was not that type of inevitable. It felt inevitable in the sense that, yeah, he had to win, and after he “won” there was still too much unresolved and more aesops to be given. Like the music at the end of Full House, you were just waiting for some point to be made so the story could then end. Like I said, this isn’t necessarily BAD but it is, at best, neutral.
In summary: 7.5 out of ten stars. Wright’s prose is simply too good to merit below that, and as far as aping Lewis goes Wright succeeded brilliantly. The novella definitely captures the feel of Lewis’s Narnia books. But the story gives far too limited a scope for Wright’s breathtakingly huge imagination, and the plot isn’t creative enough to be memorable. In the end, Wright is no C.S. Lewis. He is John C. Wright, something entirely different and more than good enough. He can ape Lewis as well as the best of them, but it doesn’t suit him. 7.5 out of ten stars.
Recommendation: It’s three dollars on Amazon right now and well worth that price, but if you’re only going to buy one book today by Wright get “City Beyond Time”, which is, after all, only two dollars more. But if you have three dollars to kill, I’d call it money well spent for sure, especially since you’re not going to find it in the library.