Josh Ritter is best known for his music: since 1999, he's released six albums, each filled with fantastic stories set to music. His nex to last, So Runs the World Away (2010), contains a couple of speculative songs, from Egyptian mummies falling in love with archeologists ("The Curse") to a take on Galahad and the Holy Grail ("Galahad") to arctic explorers caught in the ice ("Another New World"). Now, Ritter has turned his talents to the literary sphere with his first novel, Bright's Passage, which draws on his skills as a storyteller, and is, like his music, subtly rooted in the speculative fiction genres. The book sketches a fantastic story against unknowable odds, fitting in perfectly with the style of Ritter's music and establishing him as a master storyteller in more than one medium.
Ritter sets his tale shortly after the end of the first World War, as Henry Bright returns home to West Virginia from Europe a profoundly changed man. During the war, he found himself under the protection of a guardian angel which has followed him home in various forms—his horse, a goat—to guide him towards an unknown destiny. Shortly after returning home and prompted by the Angel, Bright marries his first cousin Rachel, and they have a child. Tragically, Rachel dies following childbirth, and Henry finds himself the father of a boy the Angel has dubbed the Future King of Heaven. Pursued by his father in law, the Colonel, who has been driven mad by his daughter's death, Bright must choose between the destiny that’s been laid down for him and the interests of his own family.
This is a rich, short read that packs a powerful punch. But, at the same time, there's a level of grim comedy throughout: the Angel's advice is at best counterintuitive, and at worst, downright crazy. It's a deceptively funny book at points, which leavens what might otherwise have been an overly depressing read. Early in the novel, the Angel orders Bright to burn down his former home in Virginia, setting off a major wildfire that pursues them.
"Last time I let a goddamn angel help me start a goddamn fire," he said. "He makes fun of me, tells me I can't start a fire without a angel, and then that very angel goes and burns down the whole goddamn forest down." (p. 19)
Ritter weaves in flashbacks as the story progresses, slowly revealing the layers of each character as Bright tries to escape from the Colonel and his two sons. We meet Bright's mother and learn of her strained relationship with the Colonel, and of his own strange family. We see the horrors of war on a post-apocalyptic battlefield in France, and we watch as Bright works to rebuild his life after his extraordinary experiences overseas. Ritter brings us across a vivid war-torn Europe to a burning West Virginia on an epic journey of a man who just wants to be left alone.
Henry Bright may be the title character, but the most interesting of the cast of characters is the deranged Colonel. Clinging to a military life long past, Henry's uncle and father in law is a contradiction: careful with his words and appearance, but hell-bent on tracking down his son in law/nephew, presumably to execute him: it's hard to see him as the villain early on (because really, you don't want your daughter marrying her cousin), but there are other points where you can't help but notice that he does appear to be insane. In contrast, you can't help but wonder if Bright himself isn't insane, driven to madness by the fighting that he witnessed, and going on to marry his cousin, father a child with her, burn down his homestead and the forest along with it, all because an Angel told him to.
At its core, Bright's Passage is a story of a man taking control of his own actions. Bright enters the story as a character who’s out of control, buffeted by everything around him: the commands of the Angel, the fires, the people pursuing him. It's this distinction that really sets Bright's Passage apart from the fantasy genre: Bright's cumulative experiences between Europe and West Virginia teach him the perils of handing the reins over to someone else. His rite of passage teaches him one of the most important lessons that anyone can possibly learn: to stand on one's own merits and actions and take responsibility for one's own destiny:
"We've had our differences, you and me, but everyone should have a home, and it weren't a trouble to bring you here. You kept me safe when I was in the War, and maybe I wouldn’t have married Rachel if it wasn't for you, and maybe we wouldn't have had a son." He paused to consider the thought. "Maybe that’s all true. I don't have any idea one way or the other. But I do know that without you, I wouldn't have burned down our cabin, and the whole forest and all those people's homes and let my horse get shot. And," he said, "I wouldn't have let anybody make me believe that I couldn’t raise my own son." (p. 191)
In a lot of fantasy novels that I've read—and there are exceptions to this trend—there is a preoccupation with the idea of the protagonist or other characters living up to the story: everything that occurred before frames the story in such a way that the main character has been led to take the lead, the only person who's able or preordained to overcome the obstacles that lie in their path. Bright's Passage takes this idea and turns it slightly; not enough to fly in the face of it, but enough for the protagonist to realize that he has a choice between his heavenly destiny and any other option available.
I would be hard pressed to classify Bright's Passage as a Capital-F Fantasy novel, but it's not free from some interesting speculative elements. Bright's Angel may be a representative of the almighty, but the book distances itself from falling under the definition of Christian fiction. Personally, I feel as though it could fit in with the Gothic horror crowd, but your mileage might vary: Ritter's descriptions of the war-torn cathedrals and trenches of France, and the post-apocalyptic fires of West Virginia, are as haunting as they are beautiful, which lend a certain atmosphere to the entire tone of the book that reminded me a bit of Cormac McCarthy's The Road.
Bright's Passage is a thoughtful book, driven by a cast of interesting characters amidst the backdrop of a vivid landscape between the United States and Europe. It's a morality tale set in an unpredictable, violent world, where few have a clear grasp of what to do. Even then, those who know the way through the darker times to the light are particularly difficult to follow in this modern epic journey. Critics have noted a bit of a trend in post-apocalyptic, speculative elements working their way into mainstream literary novels, and in a way, Ritter's first novel adds to that particular trend with Henry Bright and his guide.
One thing is for sure, though: Josh Ritter is one amazing storyteller, on the stage and on the page. While I wasn't sure how his stories would translate into the written word, this read completely surpassed my expectations.
Andrew Liptak is a freelance writer and historian from Vermont. He has written for such places as io9, Tor.com, SF Signal, Blastr, and Armchair General. Follow him on Twitter at @AndrewLiptak or visit his blog at andrewliptak.wordpress.com.