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Orphans of Chaoes

John C. Wright
(318p.) Tor. $24.95
ISBN 13: 978-0-765-31131-3

Cover This is a book that's likely to be misunderstood. Chances are you will either find it wickedly entertaining, highly imaginative, and thought provoking -- as I did -- or you find it disgusting, sexist, inappropriate, and to be kept out of the hands of children at all costs. (Don't worry. I'll get to the naughty bits soon enough.)

Five young people -- to all appearances in their teens -- are the sole students of an English boarding school on a vast estate replete with stately Georgian and Edwardian edifices. Except for the mix of sexes, this institution more closely resembles a pre-World War II British public school than any educational facility of the current century. They learn Greek and Latin, translate Homer and Hyginus, study Euclid, Descartes, Shakespeare, and Milton. The curriculum includes astronomy, philosophy, theology, advanced physics, and a rigorous course of mathematics. They read Thackeray, Edgar Rice Burroughs, and Roald Dahl, but they are well acquainted with pop stars as well.

The school staff has Dickensonian names -- Headmaster Boggin, the motherly Mrs. Wren who cares for the girls, sinister Doctor Ananias Fell, the musical Miss Daw. The orphans recollect being called (in something like the Roman manner) Primus, Secunda, Tertia, Quartinus, and Quentin, but were allowed as children to they chose their own rococo names: Victor Invictus Triumph, Amelia Armstrong Windrose, Vanity Fair (the only other girl), Colin Iblis mac FirBolg, and Quentin Nemo (who stuck with his childhood nomen.)

As narrator Amelia puts it, "The estate is our home, our academy, and our prison." Like all adolescents, they must test boundaries.

But don't be mislead -- this is no heartwarming tale of headstrong youngsters adventurously coming of age. Well, actually, it's that, too, but not in the way you might expect and we are most decidedly not talking about Harry Potter. These five orphans aren't learning spells under a (mostly) kindly faculty at Hogwarts. No one is as they first seem and the orphans are being (at the very least) drugged into forgetting who and what they are.

The plot simmers as the orphans strive to find clues to their identities. They discover mythic tales they have written down and hidden, stories they have evidently forgotten and re-discovered time and time again. As they regain memory they find themselves in possession of special superhuman powers. Quinton can fly and make magic, Victor can manipulate molecules, Vanity discovers secret passages, and Amelia can see and move in the fourth dimension. Colin's power, in fact Colin himself, is more vague than the others at first, but eventually we learn he has psychic powers.

But don't be misled -- this is no comic book story of superpowered teens. The X-men are only mutant humans. These kids are something other than human altogether and this book is not simply tale of good guys vs. bad guys.

The simmer heats to a full boil when the school's Board of Visitors and Governors show up for a meeting. Quentin and Amelia spy on them and they turn out to be, well, of mythic proportion.

Boiling along we, and the orphans, come to understand that there different versions of the universe. Each orphan comes from a different version and each draws upon his or her universe for power. They are, indeed, prisoners, but their warders -- an amalgam of various factions and interests -- are also held hostage to cooperating with one another in order keep the orphans in their grasp.

But don't be misled -- despite the concepts we aren't wandering into that sort of fantasy where everything gets explained in "scientific" terms. There are times when it seems that way, as when Amelia tries to explain the fourth dimension:

Oh! You're right. There are only six points on the hypersurface where the axis intersects it that form 3-spheres. I guess I was confusing the number of right-angled intersections with the Kissing Number, which in the case of 4-d equal 24. I was fooled because I was thinking that if a sphere is all points equidistant from a given point, such that x²+y2²+z²=r² then a four-sphere would satisfy w²+x²+y²+z²=r²....

No, Orphans of Chaos has as much more, to do with the metaphysical than the pseudo-tangible.

Those who understand little of Christian theology might even be misled into thinking this is shaping up into some sort of C.S. Lewis Christian "supposition". (Lewis: "Let us suppose that reality contained different parallel worlds, and that in one of them the Son of God, as He became Man in our world, became a Lion there, and then imagine what would happen.") The orphans are being raised in a form of Christianity closely resembling that of an Anglican "High Church" and even use the Compline at one point. There are Arthurian references and those legends were, of course, soundly entrenched in Christianity for over 500 years before current non-Christian interpretations. More pointedly, a character claims to be the "last Donatist" and speaks at length of Christianity. But she *is* a Donatist, disparaging and condemning any other version of the faith, explaining the Bible is full of fables and nonsense.

Still waiting for me to explain why some will be misled into being offended by Orphans of Chaos? Very well.

Prudes can probably handle the scene where the girls discover their powers of seduction when they roll up their plaid skirts, unbutton their white blouses, and tie on some aprons in order to distract the groundskeeper Mr. Glum with a saucy sexy-maid routine.

They can abide a scene shortly thereafter when Colin turns "from a little annoying boy into a dangerous young animal" and Amelia both loathes and loves his mastery of her:

Victor [who she fancies] looked into my eyes and he saw I wanted Colin's strong hands on me, I wanted to be helpless in his arms. He saw how pleased, how flustered, the sensation was to me....But that wasn't the message I wanted him to see. It was your hands, Victor, I wanted; your strength I want to triumph over me.

Shades of Regency Romance, perhaps, and somewhat purple prose, but nothing really offensive.

They might wince at a scene worthy of Clive Barker in which Lamia, the bloodsucking "Mother of Vampires" whose hair ornaments turn into scalpels, tests whether a captive Quentin is a man or a boy. His "flaccid manhood" attests to the latter.

No, our book banners are going to get upset with the ongoing theme of sexual dominance and submission including scenes of abduction with intention of rape, bondage, humiliating display, and spanking.

And there was an even darker naughtier pleasure trembling beneath the fear and confusion in my body [thinks Amelia]. Because I knew this wasn't a teacher punishing a schoolgirl. This was a man spanking a woman. He certainly would not have done this to a man. And he might not even have done it to Vanity. It was something for me. A bad thing, maybe even a terrible and humiliating thing, but it was mine.

Shades of Victorian Smut! Yes, Wright is certainly having a great deal of fun with his mildly erotic BDSM passages, but anyone who sees them as gratuitous lechery is reading them out of context. Although impossible to convey in a review (I'm having enough trouble avoiding spoilers), Orphans of Chaos is about the balancing and shaping of power and the power of belief. On a psychological level -- and here, on a metaphorical level -- BDSM is about the exchange of power and Wright is juxtaposing it against the emotions of characters who are so sexually innocent that who bestows and receives a first kiss is of primary importance.

Another contingent, that of SF/F snobs, may be offended by the obvious parallel to Roger Zelazny's Nine Princes in Amber. In Orphans, like in the Zelazny book and consequent series, lost memory is the key to true identity and knowledge of true identity leads to immersion in intrigue and power struggles. Get a grip, folks, Zelazny had a Master's degree in Elizabethan and Jacobean drama. You don't think he was inspired, like all writers, by those who have come before?

Orphans of Chaos has some other elements in common with Zelazny's Amber (and, perhaps, come to think, his Lord of Light) but the most pertinent is complexity. This volume is not even half the potion Wright is brewing and, not surprisingly, a sequel, Fugitives of Chaos, is forthcoming.

No doubt there will be those who are offended by this division. I'm a little miffed myself, but only because I look forward to more Chaos with much anticipatory glee. I'm sure I'll not find the likes of it before then. Perhaps if Laura Antoniou were to get a degree in physics and both Roger Zelazny and Neil Gaiman were dating her and they were all reading Hesiod in the original Greek and studying Christian theology -- they might write something like John C. Wright's novel. Since that will not happen and you, dear reader, are neither easily misled nor offended, then you will certainly want to read Orphans of Chaos. -- Paula Guran