Review: Somewhither by John C Wright
John C Wright Makes his own Multiverse of Madness
I read Somewhither after it came out a few years ago and it remains one of the most interesting and original works that I’ve read in the last ten or more years. John C. Wright weaves the Templar, mythical creatures, the multiverse and an alien invasion into a fast-passed action adventure that never seems to slow down despite its length.
Ilya Muromets is in many ways a typical awkward teenager. He has unusual and not very handsome features, his father is often away on business and he has a crush on Penny, the prettiest girl in town. His chief worry is trying to get her attention without looking like a fool, until he tries to save her from getting sucked into a portal from another universe.
Instead of saving her, Ilya is sucked in himself and is quickly taken prisoner by the minions of the Dark Tower. In the process, our young hero learns a lot about himself and his father. The reason Ilya looks so unusual is that he’s a decedent of Cain from an alternate universe, rescued by his father who is a member of the Knights Templar, whose secret mission is to guard Earth from the Dark Tower. When Ilya finally escapes his prison, he winds up leading an unusual cast of characters through the Tower, fighting a constant running battle with the Tower’s denizens, all in an attempt to rescue Penny and thwart the Tower’s invasion of Earth.
It’s almost impossible not to like young Ilya Muromets. Anyone who has ever been the weird and awkward kid out of place in his own family will be able to relate to him. Like all teenage boys, he has delusions of grandeur, of being the great warrior who manages to save the day and get the girl in the end. It turns out that his delusions are not entirely unfounded. His Templar father has trained him into a formidable warrior for someone his age and the earnest Ilya finds that his skills are bolstered by his unusual heritage. As a decedent of Cain, he has shapeshifting abilities that make him almost impossible to kill.
He’s joined by one of the most unusual casts of supporting characters that I’ve ever read. There is a ninja girl named Abanshaddi (Abby for short) who is able to evade the predictive powers of the Tower’s astrologers, the wizard Master Ossifrage, a creature with a mouth in its chest named Blemmyae, and Ilya’s best friend Foster Hiden, who also turns out to be from an alternate universe. Penny of course is the unattainable beauty, the prize the Ilya hopes desperately to win. She’s a bit aloof and condescending, but only because she’s trying to fight off the Babylonians and Ilya actually messes up her plan, causing some tension between the two.
The villains – the villains are great in this. Babylonians from an alternate reality where they finished their tower,they are bent on dominating the entire multiverse. Thus far, they have been able to do so with little difficulty, based on their mastery of astrology, they can predict literally every move their enemies make (more on this in the world building section). Once they’ve dominated a reality, they enslave the populace and bring them into the Dark Tower and increase their forces even more. Yet, their ability to predict everything they come across, including conversations, has left them empty and bored even with conquest. They just keep doing it because they believe they are fated to do so.
Wright excels in crafting his worlds and Somewhither is no different. Even with common elements, Wright will take that idea and come up with an original take and then blends it together in a way that will actually make you think. His take on the multiverse in particular is one that I have never seen before. Rather than an infinite number of them all budding off a stem as it is typically portrayed, there are perhaps a dozen separate universes. That’s because rather than a separate world representing a branch from every choice anyone can make, the only thing that can create a new universe is a choice of God. So when God stopped the construction of the Tower of Babel, that created a separate universe, while in the other, the Babylonians kept on building. In another, Jesus never came, in yet another, there was no Moses. Since this kind of divine intervention is rare, there are remarkably few universes.
In the Babylonians’ world, they have fulfilled the dream of materialistic atheists everywhere and mastered the art of determinism. This is what gives them their edge against every military they’ve ever fought. Yet, there is a way out of it. We get to see that when Ilya is rescued by the mysterious ninja girl, a move the astrologers did not see coming. She’s received a consecration to God that masks her from the materialistic world and anyone operating with her is under the same umbrella, so long as everyone acts within the moral law. Break that law and you’re right back in the astrologer’s sights.
In this multiverse lies nearly every mythical creature you’ve ever heard of, such as mermaids, vampires, wizards, and obscure ones like Belmmyae. It adds a bit of whimsy to what could easily become an overly dense and ponderous work in the hands of a lesser author.
On the surface, Somewhither has little to do with contemporary politics, other than the idea that religious people never have a reason to be violent is never even given a hearing and faith in general is taken seriously, so much so that Ilya finds prayer directly helps accelerate his healing abilities. That by itself is enough to make all the right people mad.
If they dig below the surface, they’ll really get mad. That’s because the book’s conflict is between the world of materialism and the world of faith. Is our fate determined by mere reactions to material stimuli or is it guided by God while giving us the ability to choose? The materialists are obviously powerful and overwhelming, yet, the few people operating under Abby’s umbrella of grace causes plenty of problems for the villains.
There are significant parallels in our world, with the most powerful dictatorships expending vast resources to silence the smallest voice of dissent.
Why read it?
Wright has become my favorite living author. His ability to take familiar concepts and make them completely fresh and use them building an entertaining adventure story is a thing to behold. In the story of Ilya Muromets, he gives us a wish fulfillment story that fans of movies like The Last Starfighter, The Goonies, and The Never Ending Story will definitely appreciate. Yet, fans of headier works like those of Bradbury, Dick, and Tolkien will have plenty to chew on.
Wright builds a world that brings together a number of concepts of theology, science, and philosophy in ways that will make the reader think without ever feeling like they are being preached at.
It is long but Wright does such a good job of drawing you into the story that you won’t notice and will find it a rewarding read.
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