Finally! I finally got to read a John C. Wright novel! I have an earlier book by him but have yet to crack that open, because…well, if you saw my bookshelves, you would understand why. A previous book written by him which I reviewed was an audiobook and a critique of The Last Jedi, so it does not count as reading his fiction.
This novel is entrancing, though I would not recommend it for the youngest members of my audience. Mature readers will still appreciate the Iron Chamber of Memory*, though. Here is the blurb:
The small island of Sark in the English Channel is the last feudal government in Europe. By law, no motor vehicles run on the road, and no lights burn at night. Only the lord of the island may keep hounds. Into the strange, high house of Wrongerwood wanders Hal Landfall, penniless graduate student at Magdalen College, looking for his missing friend Manfred Hathaway, who has just inherited the lordship, the house, and the island. What he finds instead is the lovely, green-eyed Laurel, a beautiful girl from Cornwall who is Manfred’s wife-to-be.
There is said to be a haunted chamber in the house, erected by Merlin in ancient days, where a man who enters remembers his true and forgotten self. When Hal and Laurel step in, they remember, with fear and wonder, a terrible truth they must forget again when they step outside.
John C. Wright is one of the living grandmasters of science fiction and the author of THE GOLDEN AGE, AWAKE IN THE NIGHT LAND, and CITY BEYOND TIME: TALES OF THE FALL OF METACHRONOPOLIS, to name just three of his exceptional books. He has been nominated for the Nebula Award, and in 2015, he was nominated for a record 5 Hugo Awards.
Iron Chamber of Memory reads like Andre Norton’s Wheel of Stars and Trey of Swords, but put through similar paces as The Chronicles of Narnia*, with added Dean Koontzian mystique. To be frank, I do not like either Wheel of Stars or Trey of Swords, since the former was too confusing and the latter left many things up in the air. Nevertheless, as soon as I reached chapter three of Iron, experience with these books let me guess part of the conceit for the story.
Henry “Hal” Landfall’s adventures begin in New York City at his father’s graveside. With his studies taking him to England, Henry had to return home when his father passed as his sister was unable to attend. At the same time, his elderly mother appears to be going senile, and she does not seem to be in the best of care. When the nurse wheels her out to the graveside, Hal’s mother is not even wearing a coat. Instead, she only has a sweater full of holes to “protect” her from the weather.
Hal’s mother keeps talking about a black dog, which confuses him because they never had such a pet. This, combined with the fact that she continually mistakes him for his father, leaves him unsure of how to answer or talk to her. At the funeral, he is too distracted to understand why a black dog barking some distance away on the street and rushing toward the fence frightens his mother so. Nor does he understand why the priest who presided over the funeral goes to chase it off.
Returning to England for his studies, Hal is invited by his best friend, Manfred Hathaway, to the Isle of Sark. Manfred has quite unexpectedly inherited the lordship of Sark, something he dislikes intensely. He is the heir since several members of the family have died suddenly, and there is no end of trouble taking ownership of the place. Furthermore, he has to marry if he is to take the lordship.
Manfred’s fiancée is the green-eyed, dark-haired Laurel du Lac. On the same night that Hal goes up to the house to meet Manfred, she is called there as well. During the walk and subsequent search for a way into the locked manor, though, Laurel takes every opportunity to fall against or otherwise put herself in Hal’s arms. It is more than a little distracting and discomfiting for him, since her movements elicit a physical and emotional response which he really should not be having. Hal is supposed to be the best man at Laurel and Manfred’s wedding, and if the best man falls in love with the bride-to-be…!
Eventually getting into the house, the two explore the empty interior. During their search they find a room stocked with canned food, a cot, and a rifle. There are many spent shotgun shells on the floor as well – far too many to be accounted for by mere target practice. And why would Manfred come all this way to camp out in the empty house to target practice?
Looking out the window, Laurel and Hal find the remains of a black dog – clearly shot – lying in the grass. It has been dead for some time, as the skull is visible and there is not much fur left on it. But what reason would Manfred have for shooting a black dog?
Despite how disturbing this discovery is for both of them, the two investigate the house further. When they finally come to the Rose Crystal Chamber, they remember who they really are…and who they truly love.
Iron Chamber of Memory is a great story. The horror increases the further along one goes, as does the growing sense that something is wrong. Although the how and why is not clear until much later, it does not take one long to realize that nothing in and about the Isle of Sark is what it seems. What is visible to the heroes and to the readers hides an invisible truth far more terrifying than that which is seen, and to save all the worlds will mean the heroes must risk everything.
But what are worlds worth when compared to the value of a single soul?
Having read the book, I can see how it was inspired by a dream, as it has a certain visionary quality to it. This does not make it too difficult to follow, though the deeper one goes, the harder it is to keep complete track of what is second sight, what is literal, and what is visible only to the inner eye. While I would not necessarily recommend the book for youngsters, this is a novel certain to appeal to horror enthusiasts and those with old-fashioned tastes. Arthurian aficionados and fans of old fairy tales will find it engaging as well, as it takes the Arthurian Legends far more seriously than a multitude of modern writers in that it does not sacrifice what made the Legends “magical” in the first place. My only lament is that it relies strongly on Le Morte D’Arthur* – but these days, what Arthurian romance does not do that?
Pick up Iron Chamber of Memory at your earliest convenience in either paperback or hardcover*, readers. It is well and truly worth the purchase price!
*These are Amazon affiliate links. When you purchase something through them, this author receives a commission from Amazon at no extra charge to you, the buyer.
If you liked this article, friend Caroline Furlong on Facebook or follow her here at www.carolinefurlong.wordpress.com. Her stories have been published in Cirsova’s Summer Special and Unbound III: Goodbye, Earth. She has also had stories published in the Planetary Anthology Series. Another story was released in Cirsova Magazine’s Summer Issue in 2020, and she had a story published in Storyhack Magazine’s 7th Issue, Cirsova Magazine’s 2021 Summer Issue, and another may be read over at Ember Journal. Her first anthology – The Guardian Cycle – is available in paperback and ebook as well. Order them today!
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9 thoughts on “Review: Iron Chamber of Memory by John C. Wright”
For me, Iron Chamber of Memory is where the wheels kind of fell of for liking Wright. In it, he indulges in all the motifs and personal kinks that, in previous works, were subordinate to a really good story: something well-paced, well-told, superbly wordcrafted, etc. Aside from the wordcrafting, this was not any of those things. (Caveat, it has been literal years since I read this book–once, and never returned.) Perhaps it should come with a disclaimer that the genre is not gothic fantasy, magical realism, urban fantasy, or epic fantasy. It’s “Fantasy Romance, as written by someone who firmly believes in No Sex Before Marriage.”
And, aggravatingly, I just remembered how good some of his other stuff–like the Metachronopolis collection–is.
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The entire plot of this book came to John, almost like a vision, about a week after he converted. Since his conversion included a heart attack and surgery, he dragged himself out of bed to write the outline. 12 year later, he wrote the book over a strange summer when he was out of work but all our bills were paid.
It is the only book he has written that is like this. It always reminds me of a Charles William book if C. S. Lewis wrote it.
If you like City Beyond Time and other works, you would probably like the things he wrote after this perfectly well–as they are closer to his other works..
That being said, I know a number of people who utterly love this book, so it might be for you like C. S. Lewis’ Till We Choose Faces is for me. Many people love it. I just didn’t like it, but I love everything else of Lewis’ I’ve read.
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I was a huge fan of Mr. Wright for years due to the War of the Dreaming and Golden Oecumene series, but–how to put this–I am more easily annoyed by the things that I have a tendency to notice, than I used to be. And I tend to rant about them when the chance arises, because I find it highly disappointing when an otherwise highly satisfactory work in my preferred genre falls short of my expectations.
*cough* Oh, and, uh, by the way, is the next Rachel Griffin book….?
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🙂 I didn’t mean to object to your opinion!
Just meant to say that the audience for this book and for John’s other books is a bit different. So if you liked his earlier books, you might like his later ones, even if this one was not for you.
As to Rachel, Book Six is done and being edited. I am hoping for this winter. (If you are impatient, there are two short stories that take place during Book Six. One is in the anthology Fantastic Schools, Volume 2 and one is in Fantastic Schools Hols (Vol. 5) 😉
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WOO! 2023 looks like it’s gonna be a good year for my favorite authors. 🙂
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If you liked the War of Dreaming, I recommend the Swan Knight’s Son books.
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I have read both (?) trilogies?
Gotta say, slowly realizing that I was reading about *that* Tom Swift was probably my absolute favorite.
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I am surprised by this response by “Riders of Skaith,” as it seems to have a lot of venom toward “fantasy romance, as written by someone who firmly believes in No Sex Before Marriage.” First, it’s not fantasy/romance, and second… so what if the author believes in no sex before marriage? Aren’t authors allowed to have beliefs about such fundamental things as sex and marriage, and arent’ they allowed to write stories based on their beliefs? Plus (spoiler alert) there is a lot of sex in this book — an outrageous amount of it, actually. Not in terms of explicitness, but in terms of how much the main character becomes enslaved to it.
That said, I didn’t like it much either the first time I read it, and the sex was part of the reason why. I found the guy’s behavior just bizarre, although I liked a lot of the rest of the book. However, I recently re-read it and enjoyed it very much the second time (the man’s behavior IS explained, I just missed it the first time, thinking it was more of a romance than it actually is). Here’s my Amazon review, which explains some of why I changed my mind:
A fabulous twist on Gothic horror/romance
The first time I read this book I thought it was going to be a very different type of story, and would have rated it lower because it was not the type of story I expected. Re-reading it, I realized that it’s a twist (in more ways than one) on a Gothic horror novel — as well as a doorway into an Arthurian romance, and into several other types of story.
The virginal protagonist tempted by someone who might be evil is a man, a brilliant (but buff) scholar who patterns himself after knights of old, though unlike them he has no personal faith. Accompanying his friend (who also thinks many passions are better served by virginity until marriage) and his friend’s less-than-virginal fiancee to the immense and mysterious house his friend has inherited on a remote (in more ways than one) British island, the protagonist discovers that much of what he thinks about his life is an illusion.
Who or what has caused him (and the other major characters) to forget? But that’s only the beginning. As he strives to figure out ways to make himself remember, we discover there are illusions within illusions, forgotten realities beneath other forgotten realities.
A locked room in the the house allows the characters to remember, but are there other locked rooms? People on the island are more than they appear to be — but what are they? What is the truth about the house, the island, King Arthur, God, and life itself? This book begs to be reread, and offers more each rereading.
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The current state of discourse on The Internet does tend to hyperbolic / performative mockery, and I’ll admit to indulging in it. I am a) not a fan of the romance genre in general, b) also of a faith that does not condone premarital sex. That jab was low-hanging fruit.
That being said, the substance of my review is my opinion. I did not like this book very much, despite having been a fan of Wright’s previously, and I think the flaws in this book are indicative of the flaws in his writing in general.
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