Orphans of Chaos
by John C. Wright
Review by Drew Bittner
Tor Books Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 0765311313
Date: 01 November, 2005 List Price $24.95 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /
Amelia Windrose, the narrator of Orphans of Chaos by John C. Wright, guides the reader into her world with a description of the borders that lie around their school. None of the children have been away from the school ever, except for rare forays into the neighboring village, and so they speculate on what it is that girds their tiny home. As they speculate (and squabble amiably), it is clear that each child has a very different view of the world and how it works--which neatly foreshadows things to come.
Amelia also describes how she considered her reflection in a mirror and found that, as time passed, she became as beautiful as she wanted to be. Hmm.
Her classmates--Victor, Vanity, Colin and Quentin--all chose their own names, just as Amelia did, but none of them have any definite notion of how old they are. This is a situation, Amelia explains, that none of them really noticed; after all, it's only the five of them and they seem to be aging. On top of that, their eccentric teacher, Mrs. Wren, only remembers their birthdays intermittently, so they have no reliable way to judge their true age. All they know for certain is that they are growing up: the boys are developing the first wisps of facial hair and both Vanity and Amelia seem physically mature.
Certainly mature enough, at any rate, to attract the notice of the surly, bestial handyman Glum, whose fascination with the girls seems unwholesome at best. However, they have the protection of Headmaster Boggin, while Miss Daw teaches them music and Doctor Fell sees to their health and scientific education. They are taught subjects that might stymie graduate students: the intricacies of comparative mythology, quantum theory, ancient languages, and much more. But for all that they are taught, they know nothing of the outside world, nor of their true parents.
In short, despite the gilded trappings, the children are in a prison.
A breakthrough comes when the children begin to discover they have powers they never suspected. Amelia can perceive objects in four dimensions (and sometimes more); Victor can control the molecular arrangement of matter around him; Vanity can find (or create) secret passageways through solid walls; Colin is a psychic; Quentin is a warlock. Each child's power derives from a paradigm of reality that shouldn't be able to co-exist with the others. So where do they come from and why are they here?
The next leap in self-knowledge comes when the school is visited by those who run the school. Amelia and Quentin spy on the assembly from hiding: a warrior, a glamour queen, two bipedal foxes, a headless man, an air elemental and many more gather to discuss the children. It becomes clear that they are pawns in a scheme of things vastly larger than one private school.
Four of the children hail from realms where Chaos holds sway. At the dawn of time, for reasons of his own, a Titan created the Cosmos, where order (i.e., a progression toward entropy) exists, surrounded by the realms of Chaos. The children are hostages against invasion by any of the four, while the fifth child (Vanity) possesses a power the governors fear greatly: the power to unlock the inherent abilities of the others.
Knowing that they are pawns in a battle of gods, the children strike out on their own. They have a remarkable encounter with an avatar of Britain itself, then flee toward what they agree *might* be safety. It isn't long before the faculty comes after them and prove that they are more than a match for the inexperienced children.
Amelia's four-dimensional powers are neutralized by Glum, who takes Amelia away, to have as his own. She's saved from "a fate worse than death" by an unlikely rescuer, who takes her on a memorable flight and subjects her to an improbable humiliation.
And things only go downhill from there for Amelia...
John C. Wright moves deftly from space opera SF and high fantasy into a genre that defies description. It blends elements of adolescent-driven fantasy with the most cerebral hard SF, including characters from diverse mythologies (some of them invented for this trilogy), topped off with byzantine political machinations and the angst of teens chafing under adult authority. (Let's see them put that on a bookshelf at Barnes & Noble!)
Amelia is an engaging protagonist, whose self-realization proceeds from an inner need to know and external discoveries that the world is not what she thinks it is. It echoes the struggles of all adolescents, bridging the personal to the universal, in a way that resonates strongly. She is by turns active investigator and prisoner of circumstance, but she is never a victim; she may be helpless but she never surrenders. As the story progresses, Amelia develops heroic qualities that will stand her in good stead. She resists a coercive "job offer" from a Greek god (in an amusing interview that presents a novel take on the Master of the Forge) and finds that some of her inner impulses may not spring from her own desires. Hmm indeed.
Her ability to see into multiple dimensions is intriguing. While not "magical" per se, Amelia discovers depths and linkages between people, their surroundings and the world that are fascinating, and hopefully will be further explored in the next volume, Fugitives of Chaos. Likewise, the abilities shown by the other children offer tantalizing glimpses of what they'll be capable of, once they shake off the manacles of false identity and become who they truly are.
Readers looking for "something different" will be well rewarded by spending some time in Wright's most unusual school. Amelia is a heroine whose particular travails (and perils) will stay with you long after the cover is closed.