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Bewildering Stories

John C. Wright, The Last Guardian of Everness

reviewed by Danielle L. Parker

The Last Guardian of Everness
Author: John C. Wright
Publisher: Tor, 2004
Hardcover: $25.95
Length: 332 pages
ISBN: ISBN 0-312-84871-4
Nowadays we tend to lump science fiction, fantasy and horror under the generic umbrella of “speculative fiction”, but it still seems to me that the three genres, at their respective bests, have different objectives. Science fiction, as its best, expresses ideas, whether expressed in the form of the “hard” sciences (the physics or mathematics of an Asimov or Greg Bear work, for example) or the “soft” (sociological visions such as those crafted by, say, George Orwell). Horror is there to tweak our gut, to shake us out of our complacency, to rattle the curtains and to show us there is something out there in the primeval darkness.

Fantasy, on the other hand, is probably the hardest to define in terms of its objectives. My Webster's Dictionary defines fantasy with phrases such as imagination and unreal. Perhaps the best definition of it is exactly that. Fantasy is the pure expression of the imagination, the opening of our eyes to those scenes that never will be or never can be, the immersion of the reader in the highly detailed world that they and the author alone create between them.

Given that definition, John C. Wright's The Last Guardian of Everness is, indeed, fantasy of the highest order. Some fantastic worlds are small and cozy: Oz, for example (a world that, as a child, I was determined to visit). Others are too familiar. Too many of the genre's fantastic worlds are built out of component parts so stereotypical they should evoke only winces by this time: elf... dwarf... smart-ass thief... old but powerful wizard (a stereotype that has been around since Malory wrote about Merlin and Shakespeare about Prospero, in fact). I could go on, but there are too many pseudo-medieval, pseudo-knightly fantasies around to name, (even though some have been done by good writers, Tolkien not the least of them).

But Wright's fantasy is a little different. Its world has a breathless depth and scope. It gives the sense, as some of Lord Dunsany's, or Alan Garner's, or William Hope Hodgson's writings do, of a universe where the world of men is a small part of an incomprehensible vastness; of strangeness on the dark side of the moon; of infinite voids and beings too alien to comprehend. Dream-colts and shape-changers and storm-kings inhabit this world. The description we read is marvelous and fantastic indeed, and one of the pleasures of reading it is the new spin Wright gives on some of the old archetypes. Yet the story also connects to our time, which is, from reading Wright's comments on the back of the book, certainly deliberate. The heroes of this story are people who share our values and culture.

Humanity is, indeed, the hero of this story. If I had to pick one myth that I suspect inspired Wright's story, I would suspect the Prometheus myth. Prometheus was the Titanic savior who gave fire to mankind. One does get the impression from reading the early myths that the gods were rather too happy with a dependant and backward humanity. The gods might punish those mortals who reach too high and call it hubris, but mortals were pretty happy to build their own fires, all the same, without having to petition Zeus for a convenient lightning bolt to cook the latest porker. Wright poses us a story of a humanity posed between unspeakably powerful forces of good and evil. One's going to drive the Earth into a horror of misery and darkness; the other's going to wipe the slate clean and start over with a pretty new world for a few lucky loyalists. Is it any wonder humanity starts thinking of pinching a few fires for themselves in this tale?

In The Last Guardian of Everness, hubris abounds. Young Galen is the still-weedy, rashly brave scion of a family that has kept a seaward eye peeled for the rise of the Evil One for generations. His house perches on the seashore in modern Maine, (due to a few miscalculations his ancestors made, which resulted in their eviction from Olde England), and one night, Galen gets the Sign. The monsters are on their way. The faith has gotten thin, and there's just young Galen and his crusty old grandfather holding down the beachhead, so Galen decides to do something bold and foolhardy. As his grandfather remarks to him, no good ever came to a hero who ignored his grandfather's advice. Galen finds out the hard way, of course, that hubris gets punished, and sometimes trusting someone is your own death warrant.

One of the things I enjoyed most about this story was the sense that magic, and decisions, have their own costs; that whatever we decide to do, we must abide by the consequences of our own deeds and decisions. No one thinks of him or her self as evil, perhaps; but when we do evil deeds, we will certainly, in one way or another, pay for those deeds. There's no free lunch; there's no perpetual motion machine; there's no action without its fateful consequences, from heeding reptilian advice on eating apples on down through history. More than Galen learn that in this story.

I need to recommend this story to those of you who have read and enjoyed Wright's The Golden Age trilogy. I'm not given to hyperbole in my reviews, but certainly, I never intend to miss any John C. Wright story I see on the bookshelf. Since The Last Guardian ends in a very annoying cliff-hanger, you can bet I'll be looking for the sequel!

Copyright © 2005 by Danielle L. Parker

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