John C. Wright The Book of Feasts and Seasons Castalia House (2014) (Kindle Edition)
I wasn’t certain what to make of this collection at first. The premise intrigued me: a collection of science fiction and fantasy stories based on the major feasts of the Roman Catholic calendar. I read, and enjoyed, the essay collection Transhuman and Subhuman, and had read “Queen of the Tyrant Lizards” on Mr. Wright’s blog. Although his fiction writing style is not my usual cup of tea, decided to give the collection a try.
The stories follow the calendar year rather than the liturgical year, a decision that fits the collection well, given the increasingly strong emotional intensity of the stories as they move from New Year to the Nativity. I should also add that several of the stories are rather gruesome, not in a gratuitous way but enough so that some readers might find the scenes jarring. “Sheathed Paw of the Lion” and parts of “Nativity” are the two most notable for that. Man’s inhumanity to man shows through, along with the promise of better. All is not gore and gloom, however, despite the serious topics Mr. Wright covers and the touches of horror. Humor, love, mercy also have their place, making the collection strongly Superversive.
There are time travel tales (“Nativity,” “The Meaning of Life,” and “Queen of the Tyrant Lizards”) a ghost story or two (“Paler Realms of Shade” and perhaps “Yes Virginia,”), accounts of First Contact and how the government might respond (to paraphrase the Grail Knight in The Last Crusade, “The government chooses poorly”, as large bureaucracies are wont to do), and a few other flavors of wonder. Because the best word to describe this collection is wonder. Mr. Wright’s stories all have a sheen of the good uncanny, a touch of Narnia about them. They pull the reader in and leave him thinking (and on one occasion blinking very hard. Someone must have been chopping onions.)
Each story draws you in despite the different “feel.” “Paler Realms” took me the longest to get into, but I’m not a fan of noir detective stories. Wright uses a tidbit of uncanny, or painfully mundane in two cases, to lure you deeper and deeper into the tale. Who knew the Vatican had a major astronomical observatory? Why are the animals talking? And what sort of person volunteers to travel with aliens to a death-touched world? Wright makes you want to know.
You do not have to be a Christian to enjoy the stories, although a little familiarity with the events of each Feast does help. But it’s not necessary. And each tale stands on its own. The settings of “Sheathed Paw” and “The Ideal Machine” feel similar, but again, large bureaucracies determined to remain entrenched tend to have the same responses to novelty, and the stories are not set in the same world. Of the stories, “Nativity” and “Yes, Virginia, There is a Santa Clause” are the most aggressively Christian, so to speak, but how many time-travel stories include someone wanting to go back to see Jesus, or the Buddha, or other great men? And how many stories through the ages have swirled around death and the question of why? Lots and lots. I personally had some difficulty with the theology in “Yes, Virginia,” but that stems purely from my religious beliefs and not from the quality and power of the story. It did not pull me out of the story. Only after I finished did I blink and shake my head in mild disagreement.
All in all, I recommend the book. I can see why Mr. Wright’s stories have been nominated for the Hugo. The colors in Mr. Wright’s writing remind me of a Persian miniature or some of the Books of Hours. I wish I could paint worlds that well.