This one is easy to read. Much less ’splainey bullshit, much more action, much more creativity. Some ham-handed things as far as character development and emotional expression go, but I’m much more willing to forgive it here since the good outweighs the awkward. There are some continuity WTFs since this was the first one written and White retconned some things in Sword Bearer and Gaal, but they’re easy to skip by.
It’s a pretty straightforward fantasy story, and some points are a blatant copy of Narnia, but White admitted as much, and he’s original enough that I’m not going to tar and feather him for it.
Wesley, Lisa, and Kurt are snooping in the forbidden attic of their Uncle John’s house and find five really old TV sets. The age of the book shows a bit because these TVs are so old that the on/off switch and the volume switch are the same knob, and I don’t know if my generation knows that that was a thing that existed. The only reason I know is because my grandma is a child of the Depression and kept her ’60s, ensconced-in-a-cabinet TV until it died in this last decade or so.
But anyway, they fiddle with the old TVs some, but they’re all old and dead and there’s no sign of a plug. But the one Lisa is fiddling with turns on and shows them a poem:
Look all thou wilt at the pictures and see.
List’ to whatever they say to thee.
The pictures you see are but one, not four,
And each to the others may serve as a door.
Once mayest thou enter by climbing the frame.
Once mayest thou enter but never again.
Once, yet I pray thee to shatter the bond
Through the glass
To what lies beyond.
Then the TVs show them some medieval-looking pictures, and Lisa reaches out to touch the glass of the picture of a man in a dungeon. Except there is no glass, and she’s sucked into the TV.
I kinda like the somewhat-irony of this variation on the magical wardrobe. In contrast to the ancient, steadfast technology of the wardrobe, we have the much more ambiguous TV, the object of scorn from all those crusty old people who say it ruins attention spans, creativity, and the viscosity of pudding or whatever. And it’s this Idiot Box, this Boob Tube that is the gateway to this world of baptized fantasy, Anthropos. Suck on that, crusty old people.
Lisa finds herself with the imprisoned rightful king of Anthropos, Kardia (hello, possible CS Lewis reference!), and agrees to try to help him escape the dungeon and its jailor, an evil jinn. She finds the Mashal Stone in a crack and finds out it makes her invisible while it makes her able to see the invisible jinn, which is really a giant yellow snake. Lisa and Kardia make a plan to use the Mashal Stone to escape, but Lisa does something dumb and is captured while Kardia is able to make it away.
Wesley and Kurt, in the meantime, are flipping the hell out, understandably so. The TV Lisa went into is dead, so they try the one with the picture of a peasant lady sweeping a path. They’re also sucked into Anthropos and meet Chocma, the lady who lives in the Hall of Wisdom. Kardia appears soon after, and they make plans to rescue Lisa from the dungeons of the Castle Authentio. We are reintroduced to Matmon and introduced to Koach, which are big, talking wolves. The raid on Authentio is a success, but Lisa is nowhere to be found.
Lisa, in the meantime, is talking to the jinn, which has taken the form of a yellow cat. The jinn is convinced that Lisa is a witch, because he can’t understand how else she could have “stolen” Kardia. Lisa kinda plays it up to mixed success, and we have an interesting play on the idea of “wish” things. The jinn offers her anything she wants to eat, but his magic — and Dark magic in general — can only create wish food. Real food comes from Gaal. She can have all the flaming crepe suzettes she likes, but they never make her full. FANTASTICAL OBJECT LESSON, MOTHERFUCKERS. But seriously, it’s done in an interesting way, even if it is obvious.
Take the part where she wishes for her Uncle John, and I think if there had been time and White hadn’t dropped the ball, this could have shown something really interesting. She can’t have her Uncle John, being in another dimension, but she might have been able to imagine an Uncle John just as good or even better for her want for comfort. Maybe she could be dissatisfied with it, but accepts it as better than nothing, or she could go frolicking into the Uncanny Valley and prefer the wish-Uncle John to the real one because it can magically know all her wants. But I don’t imagine John White was into that kind of thing to even know it was a thing.
Anyway, the jinn’s master Hocoino shows up, but he knows she isn’t a witch. He whisks her to the temple in Bamah (just as she was going to be rescued by Kardia and her brothers), and plans to use her as a human sacrifice. Chained on the high altar, she calls out to this Gaal person for something real, if he’s the only one who can make real things. And a white pigeon comes and releases her from the altar and leads her down a secret tunnel in the temple.
If you’ve actually read the books up to this point, you’ve probably noticed before, but in this book it’s made painfully clear that everything is Color Coded for Your Convenience into blue and red — and catbutt, since it was about that time that my roommate’s Big Cat and Goober Cat decided it was sit-on-Notleia-and-block-her-view-by-rubbing-our-stupid-noses-on-her-hands-and-what’s-in-her-hands time. It breaks down into blue = good and red = evil. Catbutt is chaotic neutral at best.
And then Lisa meets Gaal, and he takes her to the Bayith of Yayin, kinda like Fairy Land in that it’s there and not-there at the same time, where she is cleaned and fed and meets Kardia’s betrothed, the Princess Sunedeisis, and a vain flying horse named Theophilus. Theophilus then takes the Princess and Lisa to the Hall of Wisdom to meet up with Kardia and Lisa’s brothers. Gaal sent a letter to Kardia, arranging for the siblings to travel to the Island of Geburah to collect the three treasures from the Tower. A Matmon named Inkleth has volunteered to go along, but he’s skeptical about Gaal, and he’s a rather awkwardly written atheist character.
Journey, journey, journey, with another Lewis resemblance in that the pigeon who leads them can only be seen by Wesley and Lisa. Inkleth gets tired of this bull and goes off on a route he knows, and Kurt goes with him. Guess who’s the Edmund character?
Journey, journey, journey, they make it to the island. The explore the tower and find the treasures and a weird portrait of a man dressed in black like a magician (DUN, DUN, DUUUUN). Kurt takes it off the wall for shits and giggles, but everyone is creeped out when the picture fades to blank canvas.
Yada, yada, Kurt meets Shagah, and Shagah promises him magical powers if he will destroy the Tower and bury the treasures. Kurt agrees as long as Wesley and Lisa aren’t hurt, and though Shagah promises they won’t, he ends up dragging them out of the Tower before he blasts it to smithereens with his borrowed power.
Turns out that Shagah was using him, and Inkleth was nearly killed, but the pigeon shows up to help them find the treasures. Theophilus then shows up to take them to the main shore, and Gaal is there with white reindeer to take them to the Heights of Rinnar, where Kardia is meeting the forces of evil in battle.
Journey, journey, journey, some interesting stuff but this review is too long anyway. Battle, battle, miraculous powers of the treasures kick some demon butt. Some pretty good finishing arc for Kurt, despite the predictability of the Designated Redemption Character role. And then Gaal sends them home, where Uncle John can guess what happened.
Anyway, it’s typical of the fantasy genre, but that’s not a bad thing. It’s actually less rip-offy than, say, Christopher Paolini’s Inheritance series (though I can’t hate even that; it’s good for what it is. Hate its movie, though).
And though this is one of the best in the series, I think the next one, The Iron Sceptre, is my favorite. Till next whenever-the-heck.