I loved this book. Five stars.
This book is fantastic. The descriptions next to flawless. I never once thought, “Man, I have no idea what’s going on” or “Man, I wish I knew whether those giant winged statues are gilded or not.” They are. The characters are great, personality oozing off of them so that they all become distinct and memorable, even the German archer ninja in the fourth quarter. They are all unique and driven.
The Plot itself and its vehicles are art. The debates of fatalism/quantum choices vs free will are answered here in a most wonderful way. Evil and good, and their adherents are given voice and in suberb style, they are given voice and power against both the protagonist and the reader. Not only are we given a choice between higher and lower natures, but that each give powers according to THEIR nature. And so on. Catholicism is very present, and in a universe of ‘active’ powers, becomes a fantastic argument for the ritual to focus faith on what is true.
SPOILERS. Oh, man, you are free to continue, but spoilers await. Will you work to your higher natures, avoiding the risk of great spoilers and a deconstruction of this piece even as I praise it? Buying it on amazon here Or will you read it and thus be so satisfied to never buy it. I visited a witch-woman in an alley in an unnamed suburb who says that you will. Defy your fate and buy the book! Then return.
The book begins with Ilya and his father. It is revealed that his mother is gone, his Father does business with Vatican black helicopters and his brothers are somewhere in Italy. He is stuck here pining for Penny Dreadful (Ah, what a name), whose mad scientist father needs him to pick up an interdimensional portal and bring it to him without activating it. His father gets this out of him, has Ilya take an oath and give him a father’s blessing. Ilya drives out on a jeep from God’s own street races to shut down the machine.
There he sees Penny Dreadful in the basement and holds the machine and she accidentally turns it on. Or purposefully. Ilya shoots down the portals that come out. One gets past him and, before he could shut this one down too, he gets sucked in. In a giant sea of ‘uncreation’, he attempts to get out. Penny shuts down the portal before he can, but not before he’s able to hitch a ride on a train between dimensions. He is stabbed and revealed to be immortal of the Wolverine variety, as well as being unkillable in general.
He is put into prison, designed with a hole in the middle which he can jump out at any time to futilely escape. There are spikes which expand and retract randomly to stab him, and a hole at the top to torment him with escape. He meets Lord Ersu, or rather, Slaughterbench in English. He is the high astrologer here, and it is revealed that all are slaves to fate and the stars. All actions are predicted celestially and will and fate subject to prediction by those stars. They threaten Penny, who they captured, with torture unless he submit to them, which he will eventually, and do great evil for them, crushing the last of their enemies. Ilya defies them, and attempts escape one last time.
He fails but is eventually released by Abby, a ninja who is invisible to the stars. Rules for being invisible to the stars, acting on your higher natures, is discussed while he pulls himself together. They are separated after combining to save Abby’s teacher and Penny, which are indexed in one of the hall of records. They are separated in a fight, and Ilya comes across a revengeful mummy, who gives him a flail with powers over uncreation to fight the dark tower. He meets an engineer, who convinces Nanaksu, a member of a headless species of man in the dark tower, to take him to an appropriate level. Ilya is stopped for questioning, being naked, with Nanaksu. He escapes because no one thinks he’s immortal and kills him. Freeing Nanaksu, they decide to head to the hall of records where Abby was headed.
They meet up with her again, with her master, Ossifrage, who can make people levitate. The group are told where to go by Penny’s familiar, her falcon. They fight, then spare some ear-winged men who go to stop them because they summoned the falcon and head out through the secret tunnels that interlace the Dark Tower. Coming, eventually, to the ‘fated’ weapon storage, where they get another member to the party, Ilya’s old friend Foster Hidden. They get the sword, kill some mooks, and armor up for the finale.
They find Penny in a harem with a bunch of other girls from all worlds conquered by the Dark Tower. The guardians have already been killed by Penny, who is stuck in the harem via a collar of living metal which will strangle her should she stray too far from the chambers. Ilya sends the group to get a life draining vampire they captured earlier while he remains to guard the harem against capture. He fights one of his own world, another immortal, and defeats him by tricking him into crashing into a gate made of liquid pain. Penny keeps him down until the vampire shows up and they ‘kill’ the immortal by having a vampire eat him. They then use the vampire to free the Harem girls. And escape. However, the Dark Tower predicted this and heads them off with their Capital Ship, which houses Slaughterbench and The King of Heaven and Earth, general of all Dark Tower forces. Ilya defies them and causes the escape of the group, harem and all. Ending the first book!
This is, of course, by memory. It is unable to properly show the great amount of the care John C. Wright put into this work. Not a proper scene set but is described and given meaning. The loot of the thirty odd worlds the Dark Tower conquered are represented in the great stories and floors Ilya must traverse. Everything has a place and a burial ground and the slaves who take them there already waiting for the predicted death. The slaves are wretches, the astrologers bored and insane. The servants of the Dark Tower creatively drawn from legends and myths as well as alternate earths. Each one worth its own novels and adventures, from the world of Nanaksu and the Lamia/naga to the world or the wrathful pharaohs trapped within the tower, forced to only see the setting sun of a world not theirs.
There could be a meta discussion that the stars and characters know not where John C. Wright will take it. The characters, on strings of the strongest substance of their world, ink. The stars are the greatest of the villains of the story. Their agents, the Astrologers of the Dark Tower are themselves slaves. Despite being the masters of slaves, there are no free men in that tower. From top to bottom the only free men are the ones who defy the stars. Or rather, defy their lower natures.
Low nature, sin nature are interchangeable. Sin is the acceptance and promotion of what is evil inside the individual, or rather, what is base. My default state is one of base, gluttonous self-indulgence. To avoid work and exercise, genetically, drunkenness and waste of life and time. I could be a slave to all this, and succumb to temptations that tempt me as do all men. Others can be wrathful or lustful or prideful, so on. There is no escape but death, so the stars tell us. You could be a virtuous pagan. Fulfilled and lawful in this life, denying yourself for no good reason but to give that life meaning, that which can give you pleasure. The stars represent the corrupt world which will deny us nothing we set ourselves to.
Except for those powers which work for God, there is no hiding from the stars. The higher nature is the good which one can do against what would be base or paganically virtuous. Ilya is best example of this in the book, being the most self aware and most human, despite his immortality. His actions are both predicted and not because of his acceptance of Christian doctrine despite his sinful nature. His unlawful murders are predicted, while his saving people like Nanaksu from jail are not. What he does unthinking are predicted, as our default state is base sinful. When he acts according to his better nature, like doing honor to the vengeful Pharaoh and receiving the Twilight Flail or calling on the Name of God to Abby to help himself escape are not. When he betrays his word to the vampire, his low nature comes out and thus the stars know where he will be and how he will act.
Doesn’t mean Ilya isn’t thick though. He is a big argument for ‘achievements in ignorance’. He has no idea how most of it works and when people try to explain it he starts to zone out or just get around whatever blockages were set up. Wolf-men with impregnable fur? Beat the furless parts! Smash their gums in! A vampire sucks life out of everything around it? Obviously it’ll kill living metal and otherwise unkillable mook lieutenants. He understands things very simply, but he knows how things work. He is able to call on the Name of the Lord and cause towerquakes because he instinctively knows that the Lord will respond on a true servant at the right time and place. He knows the earlobe men will not betray them because they are slaves, and were spared by him while he declared he would cast the tower down, freeing them all. He doesn’t really start to get it until Foster Hidden starts to translate it to DnD rules and tropes. Funnily enough, the more he gets to know, he adds clothing to his person. He starts poorly dressed, realizes he knows nothing gets naked, then as he gets it in the armory, he puts on his full armor.
His love of Penny is sort of crush gone crazy. He is aware that he has to go save Penny, and the travails that he goes through only prove it. He’s a bit of a white knight, but when push comes to shove, he blasts through Penny’s tests and verbal sparing without a breeze. He doesn’t expect anything, so he binds her by promise, if he kills an immortal, she’ll kiss him. She’s fine with it and owns up to it after he actually does it. She comes around to him after he sticks with it and defies what SHE predicts will happen, as she thinks she knows better than the stars.
The rest of the cast follow different thought patterns. Foster Hidden is pretty relaxed about Ilya’s shenanigans and understands a bit more than he lets Ilya know. Nanaksu is amused by the Tower minions attempts to keep to plan and just plain likes to fight. Ossifrage is frustrated by the kids and their kid actions. Abby hates herself, and is coming around to Ilya’s brute force method of dealing with low self-value. Penny thinks she knows better, but does not comprehend that what she envisions in her own mind are star level, nor the danger that she is in.
I did not much care for Penny’s personality. She does not properly fight the powers around or inside her. Instead, she relies on herself and her ‘waterbending’. It’s a know-it-all attitude that well complements Ilya’s know-nothingness. It is sort of jarring that she, who is part of the fight against the Dark Tower, a literal 3 and a bit earth cubic diameters tall citadel to evil which predicts all actions against it, more or less. Did she think that she was immune? Or that their evil had some sort of limit? Was she a slave to pride, that the Dark Tower did not even care. A tousand servants may fall, but the Dark Tower never to her. Whatever her reason, which made sense to her at the time, it never took into account that there is no escape. Ilya has no problem accepting that evil exist and infects everywhere, even if he surprised every time he’s reminded of it.
The only counter to this sort of evil is a reliance on God. Ilya’s healing speeds up when he goes through Hail Marys and Paternosters. Actions that not only not-sinful but straight up good actions that defy ‘logic’ are required. Rather than worrying about your own life, you have to worry about others and save THEIR lives. It takes effort, rather than just going with the flow. What good is it to save you’re own life to lose your soul? Could the soul be equated with free will? Could this entire book be a long winded declaration to love your neighbor? Yes.
This book is almost the perfect book. I want the deep philosophical questions, the damsels in distress, the sword fights. I was getting frustrated when Ilya was having trouble getting through the various troubles in his way. Not in the bad way, but rather, just a sort of ‘Come oooonnn, maaaann!” sorta deal. Towards the end, especially at the Fated Weapons Armory, he starts to get it, and the book improves greatly in terms of the Main Character department.
A great read, a great thinking piece and great villains in one package to benefit of all. We are not slaves when we do good! So buy the book!
PS. Should Castalia House put out a hardcover as they did with Awake in the Night Land, I would buy it in an Instant!