BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Five orphans are being raised in a strict British boarding. They soon discover that, not only do they not seem to age as those around them do, they each seem to posses unique powers.
PROS: Strong writing, interesting characters and plot, lots of wit.
CONS: Lots of supporting characters (each with more than one name) causes confusion, slow ending.
BOTTOM LINE: A very strong fantasy set in the ‘present’ that manages to mix SF elements with a large pantheon of gods.
Much like his previous fantasy novel, Mists of Everness, Orphans of Chaos is a showcase for Mr. Wright’s ability to create a fantastic, dreamlike world where things are not as they seem. Unlike Mists, Orphans tones down the strangeness and proceeds as a seemingly straight forward urban fantasy. Each of the five orphans as a unique power that arises from that person’s world view. Amelia can move through four dimensions, Vanity is able to discover secret passages where none exist, Victor can change the molecular structure of matter, Colin is psychic and Quentin is well versed in magic, a Warlock. These powers, along with the orphan’s realization that they aren’t aging as their teachers are, ultimately lead them to question what kind of ‘school’ they are in, why they are there and what they should do next.
Mr. Wright has done a great job of creating believable, sympathetic characters. The interplay, both verbal and physical, between them rings true. They act and sound like a real group of friends would, with all the sarcasm, humor and insults that go with it. And, as seemingly teenagers, the relationship between the school masters and the orphans takes on sinister overtones. As the five begin to stretch their powers, they learn part of the reason why they are in the school and thus, more about their true selves. Along they way, they discover they are pawns in a struggle between the gods, that the ‘world’ really encompasses several dimensions and that their well being is essential to maintaining the current stalemate between the various god factions.
I’m not a big fan of fantasy, but I really enjoyed this book. The characters were very interesting, with the conceit that each person’s power is derived from their respective worldview. This leads to odd situations where experiments seem conform to the experimenter’s expectations, and not to ‘real world’ results. This gives each orphan a unique perspective and allows Mr. Wright to explore several philosophical areas covering geometry, natural philosophy and mathematics. As a SF junky, this was good stuff, although I wouldn’t recommend this to someone just getting into SF as some of the math and physics can get a bit heavy, but that was perfect for me. This also moved the book out of straight fantasy and gives it some grounding in science. How all these views can co-exist, however, has not been explained. As usual, Mr. Wright infuses the dialog with plenty of humor, both overt and sly, which really makes the book a joy to read. It reminded me of his Golden Age trilogy, although lighter on the philosophical pondering and with a bit more action.
There were two downsides for me, although they weren’t big ones. First, there are a lot of ‘gods’ involved. And each god has several different names, the orphans themselves have two different names. This made it difficult for me to always follow who was doing what to whom and why. Because of my reading style, usually at night and only with an hour or so to read, it made the reading process slower than I might otherwise expect. Second, the last quarter of the book or so seems to lose some steam. The first half leads up to a certain event, which is resolved rather quickly. However, afterward, everything that happens seems to be a denouement and the story drifts to its end. I expect this is partly a result of the fact that Orphans is the first book in a two book series. As a result, I’m not too upset by this as there is obviously more to come, and the ending here is just the calm before the storm that I expect is coming.
If you like fantasy, you’ll probably like this book, although there aren’t the usual fantasy tropes of trolls, elves, prophecies or quests. I also think if you like the Golden Age series of books, you’ll like Orphans as well. There is a heavy dash of philosophy to leaven the fantastical elements and makes Orphans an engaging non-standard fantasy book. I’m definitely looking forward to the conclusion of this story.