John C. Wright, Orphans of Chaos (Tor Books, 2005)

About John C. Wright:  Kirkus Reviews compares him to Charles Sheffield and Gene Wolfe. Locus says Orson Scott Card. Library Journal cites Arthur C. Clarke, Iain Banks, and Jack Vance. And Publisher's Weekly adds Neil Gaiman and Tim Powers.

They forgot Michael Moorcock.

John C. Wright's Orphans of Chaos does partake of some of the qualities of the authors mentioned above, and there is more, besides. The story is deceptively simple: Amelia and her friends live in a boarding school that is really an orphanage. It is somewhat unusual. There are five students, teenagers who don't really know for sure how old they are, or even their real names, and an exceptionally large staff. The group is, to say the least, gifted, and their keepers -- for they really are keepers, as much as teachers -- have some unusual qualities of their own. There are Boundaries beyond which the children may not pass without dire consequences, most likely fatal. There are strict discipline, condign punishments, and medicine that is to be taken nightly, under supervision. The children, of course, manage as often as not to avoid taking the medicine and manage to get into the kind of mischief that children do, although their escapades are of a higher order of magnitude than the usual run. There is to be a meeting of the Board of Visitors and Governors, and the Headmaster wants no difficulties.

The orphans, of course, spy on the meeting, which takes place, strangely, at night. The Board of Visitors and Governors is itself an eye opener. The Board members are, many of them, related, and additionally seem to be in the middle of a dispute over succession to a throne. It seems also that the children are much more than children, and in fact represent another faction who would just as soon wipe out the Board and their kin. They are hostages given as a peace bond after the last war between the Gods and the Titans. Needless to say, although their understanding of the situation is imperfect, they are determined to escape.

Wright has plumbed mythology for his characters, bringing them into the contemporary world in much the same way that Gaiman did in Sandman and even more so in American Gods. And one can, indeed, see hints of the epic vision of Jack Vance in this story, as constrained as it is in this first volume. Add Moorcock to the vision department: there is similar attention to a carefully constructed and somewhat esoteric basis underlying the story, details of which are explicated in passages that partake equally of quantum mechanics and the occult.

It is also a particularly rich story and a well-told one. The orphans come alive, and Wright has done something very difficult here, for they are not really human, although disguised as human children, and each has an area of strength that is reflected in his or her character, even to such details as speech patterns and mannerisms. There are passages where the reader is left with no doubt as to who is speaking by the way arguments are phrased. Amelia, the narrator, can manipulate dimensions. Vanity discovers spaces that don't exist, or didn't until she found them. Victor can tinker with the structure of matter. Colin is strongly psychic. And Quentin is a magician. Amelia, as she learns about her powers, incorporates them quite matter-of-factly into the narrative, along with her view of the powers of the others.

And it's an exciting story. Wright puts in a lot of dramatic tension, even though there is as much revelation as action in the book. A large part of the fun is figuring out who all the characters are. The author has not only plumbed mythology for his prototypes and brought them up to date, he has used the correspondences so prevalent in syncretistic pagan religions to great effect. The gods may or may not use the names we ascribe to them, with our reliance on Bulfinch and Hamilton, which I suppose is up to them: they are, after all, gods. And, speaking of gods, Wright avers that it would be a mistake to read into any of his books either pro- or anti-religious sentiments. (The question has been asked.)

I was captivated by this one. It's not a long book, just over three hundred pages (which itself seems an odd thing to say, for those who remember when a good paperback science fiction adventure ran less than two hundred), and a very easy read, which I ascribe to Wrights's fluent narrative and engaging characters. The only downside is that the thing ends in the middle of a crisis, so of course I am waiting with bated breath for the next volume.

[Robert M. Tilendis]

Robert Tilendis EarthLink Revolves Around You.