Mild spoilers ahead – you’ve been warned.
Just finished rereading Somewhither, a grand tour through John C. Wright’s daunting and vivid imagination, wherein dwell creatures eldritch, fell and fantastic beyond anything any one, or even any small number taken together, of earth’s many mythologies ever dreamed. Plus all the worlds and trained warriors and assassins and spies and superheroes from a dozen cultures, comics and RPGs (I suppose – I just hear about those things from my kids) kicked up a notch or two by Wright’s deft muse, and all tossed into one epic blender of an adventure, of which this is only Part I.
Which is why I needed to read it twice. At least.
Short and sweet: Rollicking good time. The action never stops, the fights are epic, the worlds awesome. The banter between various characters is especially gratifying and hilarious, as it switches in a moment – often a tense life or death moment – between taunting rational direwolf-equivalents in bad Latin to teenage boys gone camping level humor to ponderously grand creatures being shot down with ‘your mother wears army boot’ type comebacks. All narrated 1st person by a large and ugly teenage boy named Illya who happens to be unkillable and who has a crush on and needs to rescue a beautiful and buxom ‘girl’ ridiculously out of his league, who happens to be – not a girl.
I thoroughly enjoyed it, even though I’m probably not in the target market bull’s eye. The ideal reader – and I’m guessing, here – would be someone who grew up on RPGs and gaming, for whom their daily routine involves visiting a new universe populated by dozens of different kinds of creatures defined more by their unusual powers and weaknesses than by mere physical attributes. Rules such as ‘he can do X to him as long as he obtains Object A, but Y won’t work because he’s a Z’ will define the actions and govern to a large extent the plot. Contrast with old-school comics where all you had to know about Superman was that Kryptonite was bad, or old Star Trek where you needed to know only that Spock could do mind melds, neck pinches and was constrained by logic (as he imperfectly understood it). In any old-school battle, there was almost always only one trick/vulnerability to keep track of. In the world of Somewhither, you meet new species of creatures and new magical objects about every chapter, then later fight them off or use them somehow – you need to maintain a mental catalogue of these creatures and objects and what they do, what they are vulnerable to, what they are impervious to, so that, when the epic fight scenes erupt, you can follow. Such activity is second nature, I suppose, to RPG players, but not to this old dude. (1)
That said, Somewhither was fun and worth it, even if I found myself fumbling about a bit, especially the first time through. Go buy it and read it!
Illya Muromets is a odd teenage boy living in rural Oregon with his even odder family. Illya has grown very large and very ugly – heavy brow ridge, huge teeth. He looks nothing like his 2 brothers or his parents. His homeschooling includes rigorous physical and combat training, as well as Latin and Hebrew. He doesn’t see this as particularly weird, just sort of odd like everything about his life. His best friend is Foster Hidden, fellow Boy Scout and champion archer.
Dad takes ‘business trips’ that involve getting armed and armored to the teeth, which arms and armor include any number of holy relics and silver bullets, and and hiking up the hill to the ruins of an old monastery and disappearing for days on end. His mother went on one such trip, and never came back.
Illya gets a job doing grunt work at a nearby ‘museum’ for the mad and colorful Professor Dreadful, who has an inexplicably beautiful and brave daughter Penelope. Penny Dreadful (groan!) tries to become the youngest person to sale around the world alone, but her yacht goes down and troubles beset her. She doesn’t get the record, but she survives and returns in time for Illya’s raging hormones to inflict the world’s worst crush on him.
Professor Dreadful gets locked up in the local nuthouse, to the surprise of few. He had been working to decipher a set of what might be cuneiform letters that appeared mysteriously on a wall at CERN after a fatal accident.
Illya gets a desperate message: Professor Dreadful has deciphered the cuneiform, which contained instruction on how to build a gateway between worlds in Ursprache, the one language spoken before the fall of the Tower of Babel.
He has constructed the gateway. He left it running in the museum basement. Penny is going there. Illya must unplug the gateway and save Penny!
Finally telling his father what he had promised to do, he gets geared up, armed with an ancient katana, and advised to shoot the humans but chop the freaks. His father’s advice includes such gems as: “Decapitate, disembowel, dismember,” and “Make blood loss work for you.”
It does not go well. The gate gets opened. Evil creatures invade earth. Illya ends up on a ship between worlds, ultimately a prisoner of an unimaginably great power – the unfallen Tower of Babel. The rest of the story concerns Illya’s discovery that he cannot die, his escape and his efforts to find and free Penny. While almost everyone in the Tower is an utter slave, Illya does meet up with a few good guys with interesting superpowers: Osafrage, who looks like an Old Testament prophet and can control gravity; Foster Hidden, who turns out to not be just another Boy Scout who is good with a bow; a Blemmye, a headless giant who can and will eat anything and any body; and Abby, a ‘twice born’ girl who is invisible to the stars. The story involves a series of epic fights and narrow escapes, culminating in a showdown with the only other creature just like Illya – except utterly evil. This book ends on an outrageous cliffhanger – which is, I suppose, required after the manner of its kind.
All this action and banter and wild creatures would make a great B movie. Somewhither is raised to a higher level by Wright’s key plot device: in Babel, astrology works. Everything is fated and known. All the inhabitants are slaves not just to the Tower, but to an iron fate. EXCEPT: there are those who do good for the sake of doing good, which is the one free thing a man can do. Once you do that, you are invisible to the stars, and thus to the astrologers of Babel. BUT: do something base, something selfish or vile, and you become visible again, and trapped by Fate. Through this device, Wright is able to explore the current moral fade of Materialism, imagining that, since everything is ruled by immutable natural laws, there can be no free will, no choices made – all is determined. Wright paints a detailed picture of the despair inevitable with such a view, and the life of freedom those who choose to do good – to die to themselves to live in God. That is the life of adventure, of sacrifice, and of love, which is ultimately what Somewhither is all about.
Eagerly awaiting Volume II.
- I gather also that players of RPGs and video and strategy games get to be very conversant in mythology and mythological types by osmosis (I once asked our youngest about a character race in another Wright story – a hormagaunt, I think – and he knew all about them from some game or other). I’m swimming uphill in the sense that I have to figure out and categorize unfamiliar creatures all the time:imagine reading Tolkien for the first time, and having no idea what a dwarf, elf, troll or wizard was. Multiply that by an order of magnitude, and you’re in my boat as I read Somewhither.