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Orphans of Chaos by John C. Wright – review
Orphans of Chaos is a magical, wondrous, spellbinding book you won’t want to put down. It was a Nebula Award Nominee for Best Novel in 2005 when it first took the world of fantasy literature by storm, and after reading it, I can definitely see why, because it’s an awesome and breathtaking novel. Though it is about what happens to four very unique teens–Amelia Armstrong Windrose (the first-person narrator) and her friends and fellow students at a secluded orphange/academy–it is not only a novel that teens can enjoy reading. It’s a great work of fiction whose main characters just happen to be teens.
The orphanage/school is really more like a prison to the only five students within its walls. Headmaster Boggin, Mrs. Wren, Grendel Glum, and Dr. Fell are a few of their jailers. Amelia can see in four dimensions, Victor can control the molecular arrangement of matter, Vanity Fair can find secret passages where none existed before, Colin is a psychic, and Quentin is a warlock. The boundaries of the school are the subject of much debate; each one marks the boundaries of alternate dimensions.
In the first chapter of the novel, “Boundaries,” the teens speculate about what sort of boundaries are around their school and where they begin and end. We also get to learn a little about their earliest memories, before they were taken, or brought, or possibly abducted. Each of the them would recite to the others his/her “Tales,” and the others were not allowed to make fun of nor question the validity of their memories, no matter how bizarre they might seem to be. Their “Tales” seem too strange, too fanciful to be anything more than a mish-mash of fairy tales, myths, SF, and legends woven into their actual memories, but it’s all they have left, and maybe they are real.
It was also interesting to read about how the teens got their names. They have two different names, one being the names they had before coming to the academy and the other being one of their own invention based on their own reasons. Amelia, for instance, chose her first name because she is a fan of Amelia Earhart. She has a leather flight cap and goggles she sometimes wears that she considers to be lucky. She writes, “my real name was lost with my parents.” Vanity (whose actual first name is “Tertia”) named herself “Vanity Fair” after the Thackery novel by the same name.
The academy, whatever it is, and whatever the true intentions of the people who run it, does offer the teens a stellar education. But one thing that the school’s teachers don’t tell the students is who they really are, and reading the novel and finding out who they really are is what makes it such a great read. They are taught subjects such as comparative mythology, quantum theory, ancient languages, and much more. However, they know little of the outside world, except what they hear and see on the BBC channels, and only have their “Tales,” (ones they’re rapidly forgetting) as any sort of link to their true parents.
Though they seem to be aging, they also have no real idea about when their birthdays are, nor how old they might be. Amelia has memory glitches, recalling things from the past like running races against the other students, or getting into fights with them, or comforting them and helping them recall their “Tales,” when they’re secluded in a rat-infested basement. She recalls events from what she feels had to have been maybe ten years ago, but that doesn’t seem to corelate with the age she’s told she is at various points in the novel.
One day, she and Vanity come across papers “folded and refolded and crammed into a little crack where the wainscoting had become separated from the wall.” The papers seem to contain fairy tales on them, and Amelia writes that: “I remember thinking that I was too old for fairy tales.” She doesn’t recognize the handwriting, the stories, or “any of it.” Then, she writes:
A year, perhaps two, went by before I was old enough not to be ashamed of my interest in children’s tales, and I thought to look at it again.
By that time, I had learned my penmanship. My cursive letters flowed in a fair, clean hand from my pen, far better than the crooked scrawl I had been using even a year before.
And here were these papers at least ten years old, or more. It was my handwriting.
As one reads, it becomes clear that there has been a deliberate attempt to destroy the teens’ memories and make sure they know as little about their pasts as possible. Dr. Fell has experimented on them, they are weighed and measured every night, and asked about their dreams. He has Mrs. Wren give them medicine to drink at night before they go to bed that is meant to inhibit the possibility of their powers growing and being used against their “jailors,” who are not at all what they seem to be on the surface. Their main task is to keep the teens from one day realizing who/what they are and being used as allies by one of the various gods/goddesses in a war for total control of all of creation. The students are basically pawns in the hands of gods, but pawns of potentially immense power that could be the deciding factor in a war.
One part of the novel that I especially enjoyed reading about was when Amelia and Quentin spy on a meeting of important Visitors and Governors of the academy by escaping from their rooms and eavesdropping on the proceedings. They see very unusual people (or beings) around a large table speaking about the ultimate fate of the Uranians, by which they mean the five teens. Some think they should be killed, and some believe they should be kept alive for at least another year. They include: a Soldier, the Lady Cyprian (who is very beautiful and possibly is Aphrodite), a headless man who carries his head around with him (the head is very much still alive, and can make facial expressions and speak), bipedal talking foxes, two naked nymphs, Boreas–who is an air elemental–and others.
Four of the five teens come from the realms of Chaos. They are held as hostages to prevent an invasion by forces from any of the other realms. The fifth child, Vanity, has the power that the Governors fear the most: the power to unlock or release the abilities of the other four.
Once the teens realize who they actually are, and that their lives could be sacrificed at any time, they decide to leave the Manor. Their adventures after they leave are very interesting, and action-packed, but I don’t want to reveal any more spoilers than I already have, except to say that the faculty of the academy doesn’t take their leaving very well and they come after the teens.
Orphans of Chaos is a fantastic book, and it’s easy to see why it was chosen to be a Nebula Award Nominee for Best Novel. If you love reading Fantasy novels, I highly recommend that you check this book out, and its sequel, Fugitives of Chaos, that continues the story and adventures of the five teens.