I’ve not read all of the Narnia books (I’m sorry! I will correct this defect in my reading ASAP.) I have read enough of them to see the influence of the Narnia books in this novella by John C. Wright.
What we have here isn’t a pastiche. You won’t find Peter or Lucy or Aslan or any of the other characters from C. S. Lewis’ classic fantasy in these pages. But their presence permeates the book.
Tommy is a single middle aged man. He’s just been given a promotion, and after celebrating a little too much that night, he drops his keys into the rose bush beside his steps while trying to unlock the door. After fumbling for them in the dark, he looks at the statue of St. George in the churchyard across the street to help him find “the key that I have lost”. What he pulls out of the bush is a black cat with a silver key about it’s neck.
The cat is Tybalt, a friend from his childhood, and the key opens all sorts of things, just not Tommy’s front door.
When he was a boy, Tommy and his friends Richard, Sally, and Penny traveled to a magical land to save it from the forces of darkness. Each had a magical item they needed to complete their quest. Once they were victorious, the four friends returned to England and got on with their lives. Those events are misty memories now. “The key that I have lost” indeed.
But the forces of darkness have regrouped and crossed over into our world. Now Tommy must try to save the world. He sets out to regather his three friends. It’s not going to be the same. People change as they grow older, and not always for the better.
One Bright Star to Guide Them is very much a love letter to The Chronicles of Narnia. There are enough similarities that you can say certain things in One Bright Star were inspired by elements of Narnia. Wright’s affection for Narnia comes through quite clearly.
But unlike Lewis, Wright isn’t writing for children. This is very much a story for grown-ups. References are made to events off stage that would be highly inappropriate in a book for children. The themes of loss of innocence, faith, and for lack of a better term, selling out to the world run through the story. But don’t think this is a post modern deconstruction of Narnia.
It’s not. If anything, it’s an affirmation of Narnia. Wright drops plenty of hints about what the children did in their adventures, the friends they made, the sacrifices and forgivenesses involved in their decisions. He contrasts that with the people they’ve grown up to be, and some will be weighed in the balance and found wanting. (I’d love to read the stories of Tommy and his friends when they were children. Wright references enough events for several books at least.)
It’s also a cautionary fable. The characteristics that made Tommy an effective hero have been eroded as he’s aged. He has to regain some things he’s lost and turn his back on some things he’s gained if he wants to win his battles. Ultimately, I think this is the whole thrust of Wright’s story: don’t lose the noble aspects of who you are as you grow older, and there’s always a chance of redemption. Tybalt says as much at the end of the story when he tells Tommy what one of his friends will be called to do in the future. While you could call the ending happy, it’s not without great cost. (For starters, most employers don’t accept saving the world as a reason for walking off the job.)
One Bright Star to Guide Them is on the final Hugo ballot this year in the Novella category. I’ve not read the rest of the pieces in that category (that’s my project for the next few days), but as far as my vote is concerned, this one is going to be hard to beat.