John C. Wright – “Orphans of Chaos”

6 Aug

GENRE: Science Fiction / Fantasy
PUBLISHED: Tor Book, 2005 (e-book)

WHY THIS NOVEL: part of Tor’s free e-book promotion + read good things about it

from the website
“What if your teachers taught you everything–except who you really are?

For Amelia and her friends, the strict English boarding school she lives in is all she has ever known. The sprawling estate, bordered by unknown territory on all four sides, is both orphanage, academy, and prison. The school has a large staff, but only five students, none of whom know what their real names are, or even how old they are.

Precocious and rebellious, all five teenagers are more than just prodigies. Amelia can see in four dimensions. Victor can control the molecular arrangement of matter. Vanity can find secret passageways where none existed before. Colin is a psychic. Quentin is a warlock.

And, as time goes by, they’re starting to suspect that none of them are entirely human . . .”

Orphans of Chaos is the first part of the Chronicles of Chaos trilogy and it is told in first person by Amelia, a young girl with otherworldly powers. Normally, I don’t have a problem with first person narrators, sometimes I even think it more effective/appropriate for a story. But I had a difficult time getting into this novel.

My main reason for that was that the story takes place in a strange and somehow “off” world Amelia knows nearly nothing about. Trying to make sense (apart from the figuring out how this world functions) and find the story was sometimes tiring. There are very strict (and strange) rules at the school. What’s up with that? Is the world around the school the world we know? And how old are these “children?” A secondary reason was that IMO nothing much happens in the first chapters. There are mostly recollections of past events (which work well as an introduction) and discussions of the nature of reality (which I found interesting), but there is no actual story. At times is seems as if all what the children (and the reader) know is that they know nothing.

With chapter 7 (around page 100), this changes. After figuring out who’s who (a lot of characters show up at the school then), there’s finally a larger picture and it looks like the “real” story is about to begin. Amelia sums up the situation for her friends (she has to speak fast because most of the time they’re not alone): “The Greek Gods run the school. We’re hostages in a war. They’re afraid to kill us because our families will attack” (p. 144). In the last chapters, there’s more talk than action again. The conversations mostly center around theology and deliver more background information.

What I didn’t like:

  • the undertones that went with the uncertain age thing
    The 5 main characters start out as children, then (around the “second part”), they seem older (at least around 18 I thought), only to revert back to something like 14 at the end. At least, that is what I get from the descriptions and the things the characters themselves think, say and add together. And this differs all the time. I get that they have no concept of age and that they’re in fact age-old beings trapped in human form and in the bodies of children. It seems that their powers are more difficult to contain for their captors because they’re on Earth, making the children’s bodies grow and their bodies age. But that most of the male caretakers (their captors, really) lust after the two girls after they develop a bit of breast while they are still described as children is a bit creepy, IMO. Also, the captors are gods; I thought it was supposed to be easy for them to get some action. Really, there was no compelling reason to put it in the story in this way, IMO.
  • Sometimes the need to display how the children differ in their view of reality by having them all explain the same thing is tiring and slows down the story.
  • Some small things don’t add up. For example, the children grow up really sheltered with nearly no contact to other children and no knowledge about what’s happening in the world around them. When they have contact with them, they don’t know the things the other children talk about. But one of them writes letters to celebrities? I thought they had no knowledge about that kind of things? These things probably bugged me the way they did, because I otherwise admired the world building skill.

What I liked:

  • Orphans of Chaos full of different interpretations of reality (represented by the 5 children) and discussions about reality, theology, Greek mythology and the universe. And all these elements are combined into something new and different, creating an original world out of them, complete with its own theory about the formation of the world and with a war between Chaos and Cosmos looming in the background. Talk about huge. All that I found interesting, and it delivers a lot of things to think about. Figuring it all out – what your point of view is in relation to all that and how it all “works” (not that I actually presume to get it all) – is interesting, stimulating and fun.

Orphans of Chaos ends nearly in the same place it began. There’s only the tiny flickering of something in the body of the POV character that hints at something being different. So as a stand-alone, this novel rather fails because apart from interesting world building and discussions of various concepts and ideas (where this novel shines), it seems as if the story goes nowhere. 5 children grow up as orphans and they know nothing. Then they learn that they’re hostages to prevent a war and try to escape. They are caught and it’s back to square one (more or less).

Since this is the first part of a trilogy, my perspective is naturally skewed as I haven’t read the others. But generally speaking, I’m not too happy when a whole book is spent establishing a world, interesting and thought-provoking ideas and world building notwithstanding. After finishing Orphans of Chaos, I just can’t shake the impression that huge chunks of the second part will again have to deal with the characters learning about themselves and the world, in that way repeating Orphans of Chaos. Right now, I don’t see a point in reading that again.

So, will I get the other parts of this trilogy?

I’m really not sure. Apart from the world building (of which I already have an idea after reading Orphans of Chaos) there’s nothing that really “hooked” me to go on reading. I would probably check them out of the library if I could but I can’t, so I … hmm.

Would I recommend this novel? 1. As a stand-alone, maybe. It depends on who is asking; 2. Yes, if the complete trilogy works as a story.

Would I read this novel again? Yes as part of trilogy, otherwise probably not.

Grade: 3 / 5 (as a stand-alone; it’s a compromise between the interesting world building and my impression that there is nearly not much of a story in this novel)


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