Review: Swan Knight’s Son by John C. Wright

It’s hard to look at John C. Wright’s work without comparing him both to his prior work, and to other heavy writers in the field who have deep prose steeped with mythology. I’ll make a confession that, up until this point, I’ve liked Mr. Wright’s work, but not loved it. My prior experiences include Count To A Trillion and Somewhither. While both are imaginative beyond my wildest dreams, both books I believe suffer at points as Mr. Wright has a habit of getting lost in his own prose and introducing new concepts – beautiful prose to be sure, but prose that sometimes bogs down the storyline and confuses the overall plot. Though there are certainly a number of concepts in Swan Knight’s Son that appear out of left field at points, I feel like this was a much tighter story than the other works of his I read, and there was not a single point where I felt bogged down at all.

I’ve compared Somewhither to Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere, both books that take us into a dark otherworld that overlaps with our own in some ways, modern combined with the fantasy. In keeping with this comparison, I view The Swan Knight’s Son as Wright’s Stardust, in that it showed us a lighter side of things, combined “being in a real world” with magics and how it all worked, and felt like a much lighter tale suitable for all ages.

It’s also impossible not to evoke imagery of the way C.S. Lewis wrote with this book. The characters calling men “Son of Adam” marks a direct callback, but with the personified animals through the main character’s magic, the way the story ebbs and flows like a classic fantasy, I believe this work actually is up there in feel and quality with the Chronicles of Narnia, high praise but well deserved.

We meet the protagonist named Gil, with the last name Moth (which is partially where the Moth & Cobweb title gets its name) who is having trouble at school, and has a bizarre life that gets set upon an otherworldly adventure. It took me probably three chapters to get into it, as it was disorienting at first, and then the talking to animals threw me a little, but what’s interesting is while I usually get irritated with personified animal concepts, Wright’s versions of dogs and bears and all sorts of beasts felt natural over the course of the book in a way where I accepted the magic.

Gil goes on an adventure, getting kicked out of his home to go find a job, and he stumbles upon the fantasy world at this point. He determines, with a little help from his friends, that his calling is to be a knight. What follows is a coming of age adventure steeped in Christian concepts and history, mixed with mythology and combined with fantasy concepts like elfs and mermaids and all sorts of cool things that develop over the course of the book. I won’t spoil more than that, but it’s a very deep fantasy world with unique takes on all of the familiar concepts. I can’t applaud the worldbuilding aspects of this book enough.

Same with the characters. Gil is supremely a character that you can root for. A young boy who has a mysterious past that gives him a destiny. He has a noble heart, a desire to do what’s right and a strong wrok ethic—really a great role model for a young boy. Ruff, his faithful dog companion is about as wonderful as he gets too, truly a boy’s best friend. You can see classic archetypes and Americana through these characters, as well as the past concepts of chivalry and honor. Gil’s mermaid cousin who we meet later in the book is someone quite easy to fall in love with as well. I wanted more of her in the book and hope that future installments feature her a bit more.

I mentioned issues with pace in Wright’s prior work to this that I read, and there was none of that here. I didn’t want to put this down at any moment in the book. I was gripped the whole time with a desire to know what happens next. All one can ask for in a book.

My other main issue with Somewhither was the way it ended. While this book certainly left Gil’s fate with a question mark, it was oddly a satisfying spot to end the book. He had his hero’s journey and anything that came out of the I’ll call it series set up in the end would have felt like a different story. I’m content there, but I may not be able to hold off on reading the next book.

If there’s one word I could use to describe Swan Knight’s Son, it’s refreshing. Heroes are heroes. Magic and night creatures have evil in them. Morals and doing right give you power. It’s everything that’s been missing from fantasy these last few decades. It was short like a Narnia book, filled with adventure, and one of the most exciting books I’ve read in the last few years.  I rarely give perfect marks to a book, but this hit the spot. If you like hidden fantasy worlds, and youthful adventures, I highly recommend this book.