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Orphans of Chaos
John C. Wright
Tor, 317 pages

Orphans of Chaos
John C. Wright
John C. Wright is a retired attorney, newspaperman, and newspaper editor. He presently lives in Virginia, with his wife, the authoress L. Jagi Lamplighter, and their two children. He has published shorter works in Isaac Asimov's SF Magazine, one of which was selected to appear in Year's Best SF 3 edited by David G. Hartwell for 1997.

John C. Wright Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Mists of Everness
SF Site Review: The Last Guardian of Everness
SF Site Review: The Golden Age
SF Site Interview: John C. Wright

Past Feature Reviews
A review by David Soyka

I don't know if John Wright's intent for Orphans of Chaos was to write a Harry Potter for grownups. But that's what he's accomplished. (By the way, I'm not knocking the Potter phenomenon by saying this; there's something to be said for wrapping all the clichés of the fantasy, boy detective and coming of age genres into a highly readable series keyed to the abrupt stages of adolescent maturity. However, and not that there is necessarily anything wrong with this, the Potter series works only within the young adult form.) Even though the plot features standard YA elements such as a group of ostensible adolescents at a fantastical boarding school, be warned this is definitely not one for the pre-teen set. Indeed, it may not be suitable for some older teens. Not just because of the mild eroticism, including an S/M scene in which our lovely narrator is placed in chains and dressed as a harlot by her captors to tap the powers of the school's dirty old man of a caretaker. But because most of the clever repartee among the chief characters -- which includes dense expositions of molecular physics as well as references to the fine points of Greek mythology, pagan and Christian belief systems and the classical philosophical discussions that so fascinate scholars of antiquity -- will go over their heads. (Truth be told, sometimes it goes over mine.) Indeed, if you're familiar with any of Wright's previous works, either the science fiction Golden Age trilogy or the War of the Dreaming fantasy duology, you come to expect a level of erudition that serves to remind you of the considerable gaps in your own evidently inferior liberal arts education.

Five seeming children (the titular orphans) attend a British boarding school where just about everything is not as it appears on the surface -- not the least of which is that each orphan possesses a singular supernatural ability. While every kid in school probably has felt imprisoned, the orphans literally are so, and there is considerable uncertainty in whose interests their schoolmasters/captors operate. In that sense, we're in familiar YA territory -- the alien adult world with its peculiar rituals and behaviors revealed amidst the awkward frustrations of onsetting physical and emotional maturity. However, no one outside of maybe Stephen Hawking, when he was 15, talks like the seeming teenaged narrator Amelia:

"Imagine every object as a worm, or an umbrella, drawing a line through time. The one line toward the direction of less entropy we call 'past,' and its position is determined within the limits of quantum uncertainty. The multiple lines towards the direction of greater-entropy we call 'future,' and their locations, to simultaneous observers, occupy the set of all possible locations to which the object could move in a given time. Put two gravitating bodies near each other and their sets of possible motion lines bend towards each other. The line defined by the least energy expended is inert motion, or free fall. The free-fall line, which would otherwise be straight, is distorted by a gravitating body so that it curves in a conic section. Got it?"
Well, sort of. Just as I sort of can keep track of the multitude of pagan gods, witches and fairie types Wright parades throughout the narrative. For that matter, it is sometimes difficult to keep track of the five orphans, each of whom have various names -- the ones they were given, the ones they chose for themselves, and the ones that reflect their supernatural abilities. Thus, for example, you need to remember that Quartinus is also Colin Iblis macFirBog. My favorite, though is Tertia who chooses to be known as Vanity Fair, after the Thackeray novel. As Amelia observes, she did so "...that she could be called Miss Fair. We are lucky she did not end up called Miss Pride N. Prejudice."

While this name play may strike some as inane, it seems consistent with an author named Wright who, if the book jacket is to be believed, named his three offspring Orville, Wilbur and Juss. (I'm sure when his kids get older he'll regret that bit of jocularity.)

This may seem silly stuff, and it is, but it is also highly enjoyable stuff. If you liked Wright's War of Dreaming sequence (which also frequently didn't take itself too seriously), then this should be on your "to-read" list.

I don't think I'm giving much away to reveal that the book ends with the characters still entrapped, albeit with a better understanding of their situation. The next volume's title, Fugitives of Chaos, would seem to indicate they do escape, though since there is at least one more volume on the drawing table, no doubt additional chaotic situations await us. That, however, lies at some point in the greater-entropy.

Copyright © 2006 David Soyka

David Soyka is a former journalist and college teacher who writes the occasional short story and freelance article. He makes a living writing corporate marketing communications, which is a kind of fiction without the art.

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