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Review – Orphans Of Chaos, by John C. Wright


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.

About JP Frantz (2322 Articles)
Has nothing interesting to say so in the interest of time, will get on with not saying it.

11 Comments on Review – Orphans Of Chaos, by John C. Wright

  1. I loved the Golden Age Trilogy but I read that not long after completing that book he had a near-death experience which led him to become a christian (he had previously been an atheist). As an atheist myself I found this disappointing. I think The Golden Age is one of the best SF novels I’ve read and I feared that he would end up writing transparent christian allegories like CS Lewis did with his Narnia series. The strong transhumanist themes of The Golden Age would be entirely incompatible with his new religion. I would hate to see one of the best new transhumanist SF writers be lost to allegorical religious propagandizing.

    Did you find any sign of this in Orphans Of Chaos?

  2. “Did you find any sign of this (allegorical religious propagandizing) in Orphans Of Chaos?”

    An excellent question, and forgive me if I answer at length!

    Please keep in mind how slowly the wheels turn in the publishing world. ORPHANS OF CHAOS was written many years ago, while your humble author was still a zealous atheist. There are several passages in the book which take organized religion quite lightly.

    However, I never pulled a Phillip Pullman. In this book, Christian mythology is treated with the same respect, or lack of respect, as classical mythology.

    Because it was not openly and obviously antichristian, at least one reviewer reading ORPHANS came away with the idea that it was a work of pro-Christian apologetics! This mildly astonishing fact should serve as a warning to people who place too much faith in reviewers: some of them cannot tell the difference between night and day.

    Even back when your humble author hated Christianity with all his heart and soul, I did not go out of my way to put that hatred on display in my works of fiction. I assumed there were be Christians in my buying audience, and I had no psychological imperative to drive them away. I was writing an adventure story. As in life, some people were religious, and some not.

    But let me utter a word of warning to rabid Christophobes out there. The main characters go to a British boarding school of the old-fashioned sort where going to Chapel was part of the culture. There is a scene in ORPHANS where the warlock-boy Quentin, says a prayer from the English Book of Common Prayer over the corpses of two victims of the bad guys. When his friends ask him why a pagan would say such a thing, he replies with some dignity, “Well, I may be a witch, but I am British!”

    There is another scene where the siren Thelxipeia (an ancient Greek mermaid) explains why she is a Christian. She is a Donatist from the third or fourth century, and regards the surviving Church as a mass of corruption and error. The irony of having a pagan goddess be a member of a Christian schism will be lost on those who try to read some allegorical meaning into this. She is, of course, a bad guy, so no one is allowed to attribute Donatism to the author.

    This book is not allegory of any sort.

    For those of you who want a breakdown of the religious opinions of the characters, here we go:

    Amelia Windrose is carefully and scientifically agnostic. She is willing to pray to the Archangel Gabriel, as she calculates this maximizes her chances of getting a message through to either the Christian or Jewish or Islamic God. Gabriel (or Jibriel) appears in all three of those religions, and Amelia figures he must know who his boss is.

    Vanity Fair was raised High-Church Anglican. She takes religion about as seriously as any other boring duty.

    Victor Invictus Triumph is a materialist following Lucretius. He does not have the “faith” subroutine in his mental programming and does not understand it, except as a type of persistent logic error. He believes the soul (or software) is composed of tiny subtle atoms made of aether (or electrons).

    Colin Mac FirBolg is what one might call a member of a phallus cult, except without the cult part.

    Quentin Nemo is a magus: to him, all spirits of the vasty deep may be summoned and commanded, if the daring practitioner of the True Science knows the names and laws which bind them. He would tend to regard the Christian God as something of a Quabbalistic aeon or emanation. He knows how long it takes to sing the Compline, and he would never disturb the relic of a Saint.

    Headmaster Boggin is a Machiavellian. Whatever forms of worship serve the purposes of the controlling rebellion seem useful to him.

    Miss Daw is a faithful Christian of a dead schismatic sect from North Africa. She regards all baptisms and other sacraments performed after the Third Century as non-operative: the only Christians destined for salvation at the general resurrection are those from second century Alexandria. Everyone else is out of luck.

    Mrs. Wren is a drunk and lapsed Catholic, but who takes communion with the Anglican Church. Usually she sleeps in on Sunday.

    Dr. Fell is a rationalist atheist. He regards religion as a miswiring of certain brain-paths, and would be willing, if asked, to experiment on the brains of small children to see if the defect can be isolated.

    Grendel Glum is powerfully afraid of preachers, but he keeps the skull of one he murdered in his closet for good luck.

    Grendel’s dog Lelaps was thinking of becoming a Muslim, but he found out that the paynim regard dogs as unclean animals.

    The severed head of Bran no doubt pays homage to the Sovereign Pale Goddesses of the Isle of the Mighty.

    Hades the Unseen One, Lord of the House of Woe, was not available for comment. He asks neither worship nor sacrifice, since all living things eventually he takes, whether offered in sacrifice or not.

  3. And here I was going to say, “No”.

    And Mr. Wrights comment is longer than my review! Ouch.

  4. Mr Wright,

    Thanks for the response. This is a bit off the topic of the review but I’m curious as to why you converted to Christianity (I had an opposite experience, deconversion from Christianity, 17 years ago and I find the topic of fundamental changes in a person’s worldview fascinating). If you consider this too personal a topic and don’t wish to discuss it then that’s quite alright and I understand perfectly. In the interview I read you mentioned a near-death experience but seemed reluctant to go into detail.

    As someone who seems to be well-read in philosophy and a thoughtful person I wonder why you considered a religious experience (NDE or otherwise) sufficient reason to convert to a belief in the supernatural. The objection to belief on this basis is obvious and I know you must be aware of it– that it could just as easily be purely psychological. Certainly that seems the simplest explanation. I also wonder how (and if) your new religious beliefs change your approach to science fiction. The Golden Age seemed so thoroughly non-christian a work that its hard to imagine there not being a significant difference in approach (of course I don’t know what form of Christianity you converted to and Christianity includes a massive variety of views). Not that I necessarily object to christian writers. Though I dislike the sort of fictionalized religious apologetics of C.S. Lewis I love the work of several Christian writers. Especially Thomas Merton, Tolkien and Orson Scott Card.

    Again, I know religion is a topic some people prefer to keep private so if you arent inclined to discuss it feel free to disregard this post.

  5. My only objection to discussing religion or politics in public is that it drives away my customers. Naturally, being a Christian gentleman of good breeding, I am more interested in saying what I can to the greater glory of God than pleasing my customers (much as I love them) so I will be happy to answer in this or any other forum.

    But if you have any follow up questions, out of courtesy for those who come to SF sites to discuss SF, you and I should take the conversation offline. You may write to me at

    Second question first:

    Here is a work I wrote before my conversion to Christianity. It has a strongly religious theme and a clearly religious tone. I was an atheist at the time. Here is the first part of a work I wrote after my conversion: The theme is strongly pagan. In fact, it is stolen from Sophocles. I was a Christian at the time. It would take a serious English Lit undergrad with too much time on his hands to try to show how the first one is somehow atheist in theme and the second is not.

    Just yesterday I finished work on a sequel to PLAYERS OF NULL-A by A.E. van Vogt. The estate gave me permission to write a sequel. It is to be called NULL-A CONTINUUM, and if fate is kind and the estate and the publishers accept the work, it will be published by Tor Books. It is an adventure story about a man with a double-brain and no memory of his true identity. I invite you to buy it when it comes out, and tell me if you can detect the author?s philosophy, religion, politics, economics, personal life, or any other details from how he tells a tall tale.

    I have no idea how much, or if at all, my faith will influence my works. I hope to write books of transparent Christian apologetics someday soon, but I have not yet. (Not allegory, though. I don?t like allegories.)

    First question second: is an NDE a sufficient philosophical basis to justify a conversion? The question contains a structural assumption about the nature of the human thought process which my conversion experience brought into question. If you do not believe in the supernatural, no supernatural explanation of the conversion process sounds convincing. But, of course, the question of whether or not the supernatural exists at all is the crux (if I may muse that word) of the matter. If it exists, it can act even on those who do not believe in it. If it exists, its actions would be supernatural, that is, not something for which a complete account can be rendered in natural terms.

    My conversion was in two parts: a natural part and a supernatural part.

    Here is the natural part: first, over a period of two years my hatred toward Christianity eroded due to my philosophical inquiries.

    Rest assured, I take the logical process of philosophy very seriously, and I am impatient with anyone who is not a rigorous and trained thinker. Reason is the tool men use to determine if their statements about reality are valid: there is no other. Those who do not or cannot reason are little better than slaves, because their lives are controlled by the ideas of other men, ideas they have not examined.

    To my surprise and alarm, I found that, step by step, logic drove me to conclusions no modern philosophy shared, but only this ancient and (as I saw it then) corrupt and superstitious foolery called the Church. Each time I followed the argument fearlessly where it lead, it kept leading me, one remorseless rational step at a time, to a position the Church had been maintaining for more than a thousand years. That haunted me.

    Second, I began to notice how shallow, either simply optimistic or simply pessimistic, other philosophies and views of life were.

    The public conduct of my fellow atheists was so lacking in sobriety and gravity that I began to wonder why, if we atheists had a hammerlock on truth, so much of what we said was pointless or naive. I remember listening to a fellow atheist telling me how wonderful the world would be once religion was swept into the dustbin of history, and I realized the chap knew nothing about history. If atheism solved all human woe, then the Soviet Union would have been an empire of joy and dancing bunnies, instead of the land of corpses.

    I would listen to my fellow atheists, and they would sound as innocent of any notion of what real human life was like as the Man from Mars who has never met human beings or even heard clear rumors of them. Then I would read something written by Christian men of letters, Tolkien, Lewis, or G.K. Chesterton, and see a solid understanding of the joys and woes of human life. They were mature men.

    I would look at the rigorous logic of St. Thomas Aquinas, the complexity and thoroughness of his reasoning, and compare that to the scattered and mentally incoherent sentimentality of some poseur like Nietzsche or Sartre. I can tell the difference between a rigorous argument and shrill psychological flatulence. I can see the difference between a dwarf and a giant.

    My wife is a Christian and is extraordinary patient, logical, and philosophical. For years I would challenge and condemn her beliefs, battering the structure of her conclusions with every argument, analogy, and evidence I could bring to bear. I am a very argumentative man, and I am as fell and subtle as a serpent in debate. All my arts failed against her. At last I was forced to conclude that, like non-Euclidian geometry, her world-view logically followed from its axioms (although the axioms were radically mystical, and I rejected them with contempt). Her persistence compared favorably to the behavior of my fellow atheists, most of whom cannot utter any argument more mentally alert than a silly ad Hominem attack. Once again, I saw that I was confronting a mature and serious world-view, not merely a tissue of fables and superstitions.

    Third, a friend of mine asked me what evidence, if any, would be sufficient to convince me that the supernatural existed. This question stumped me. My philosophy at the time excluded the contemplation of the supernatural axiomatically: by definition (my definition) even the word “super-natural” was a contradiction in terms. Logic then said that, if my conclusions were definitional, they were circular. I was assuming the conclusion of the subject matter in dispute.

    Now, my philosophy at the time was as rigorous and exact as 35 years of study could make it (I started philosophy when I was seven). This meant there was no point for reasonable doubt in the foundational structure of my axioms, definitions, and common notions. This meant that, logically, even if God existed, and manifested Himself to me, my philosophy would force me to reject the evidence of my senses, and dismiss any manifestations as a coincidence, hallucination, or dream. Under this hypothetical, my philosophy would force me to an exactly wrong conclusion due to structural errors of assumption.

    A philosopher (and I mean a serious and manly philosopher, not a sophomoric boy) does not use philosophy to flinch away from truth or hide from it. A philosophy composed of structural false-to-facts assumptions is insupportable.

    A philosopher goes where the truth leads, and has no patience with mere emotion.

    But it was impossible, logically impossible, that I should ever believe in such nonsense as to believe in the supernatural. It would be a miracle to get me to believe in miracles.

    So I prayed. “Dear God, I know (because I can prove it with the certainty that a geometer can prove opposite angles are equal) that you do not exist. Nonetheless, as a scholar, I am forced to entertain the hypothetical possibility that I am mistaken. So just in case I am mistaken, please reveal yourself to me in some fashion that will prove your case. If you do not answer, I can safely assume that either you do not care whether I believe in you, or that you have no power to produce evidence to persuade me. The former argues you not beneficent, the latter not omnipotent: in either case unworthy of worship. If you do not exist, this prayer is merely words in the air, and I loose nothing but a bit of my dignity. Thanking you in advance for your kind cooperation in this matter, John Wright.”

    I had a heart attack two days later. God obviously has a sense of humor as well as a sense of timing.

    Now for the supernatural part.

    My wife called someone from her Church, which is a denomination that practices healing through prayer. My wife read a passage from their writings, and the pain vanished. If this was a coincidence, then, by God, I could use more coincidences like that in my life.

    Feeling fit, I nonetheless went to the hospital, so find out what had happened to me. The diagnosis was grave, and a quintuple bypass heart surgery was ordered. So I was in the hospital for a few days.

    Those were the happiest days of my life. A sense of peace and confidence, a peace that passes all understanding, like a field of energy entered my body. I grew aware of a spiritual dimension of reality of which I had hitherto been unaware. It was like a man born blind suddenly receiving sight.

    The Truth to which my lifetime as a philosopher had been devoted turned out to be a living thing. It turned and looked at me. Something from beyond the reach of time and space, more fundamental than reality, reached across the universe and broke into my soul and changed me. This was not a case of defense and prosecution laying out evidence for my reason to pick through: I was altered down to the root of my being.

    It was like falling in love. If you have not been in love, I cannot explain it. If you have, you will raise a glass with me in toast.

    Naturally, I was overjoyed. First, I discovered that the death sentence under which all life suffers no longer applied to me. The governor, so to speak, had phoned. Second, imagine how puffed up with pride you?d be to find out you were the son of Caesar, and all the empire would be yours. How much more, then, to find out you were the child of God?

    I was also able to perform, for the first time in my life, the act which I had studied philosophy all my life to perform, which is, to put aside all fear of death. The Roman Stoics, whom I so admire, speak volumes about this philosophical fortitude. But their lessons could not teach me this virtue. The blessing of the Holy Spirit could and did impart it to me, as a gift. So the thing I’ve been seeking my whole life was now mine.

    Then, just to make sure I was flooded with evidence, I received three visions like Scrooge being visited by three ghosts. I was not drugged or semiconscious, I was perfectly alert and in my right wits.

    It was not a dream. I have had dreams every night of my life. I know what a dream is. It was not a hallucination. I know someone who suffers from hallucinations, and I know the signs. Those signs were not present here.

    Then, just to make even more sure that I was flooded with overwhelming evidence, I had a religious experience. This is separate from the visions, and took place several days after my release from the hospital, when my health was moderately well. I was not taking any pain-killers, by the way, because I found that prayer could banish pain in moments.

    During this experience, I became aware of the origin of all thought, the underlying oneness of the universe, the nature of time: the paradox of determinism and free will was resolved for me. I saw and experienced part of the workings of a mind infinitely superior to mine, a mind able to count every atom in the universe, filled with paternal love and jovial good humor. The cosmos created by the thought of this mind was as intricate as a symphony, with themes and reflections repeating themselves forward and backward through time: prophecy is the awareness that a current theme is the foreshadowing of the same theme destined to emerge with greater clarity later. A prophet is one who is in tune, so to speak, with the music of the cosmos.

    The illusionary nature of pain, and the logical impossibility of death, were part of the things I was shown.

    Now, as far as these experiences go, they are not unique. They are not even unusual. More people have had religious experiences than have seen the far side of the moon. Dogmas disagree, but mystics are strangely (I am tempted to say mystically) in agreement.

    The things I was shown have echoes both in pagan and Christian tradition, both Eastern and Western (although, with apologies to my pagan friends, I see that Christianity is the clearest expression of these themes, and also has a logical and ethical character other religions expressions lack).

    Further, the world view implied by taking this vision seriously (1) gives supernatural sanction to conclusions only painfully reached by logic (2) supports and justifies a mature rather than simplistic world-view (3) fits in with the majority traditions not merely of the West, but also, in a limited way, with the East.

    As a side issue, the solution of various philosophical conundrums, like the problem of the one and the many, mind-body duality, determinism and indeterminism, and so on, is an added benefit. If you are familiar with such things, I follow the panentheist idealism of Bishop Berkeley; and, no, Mr. Johnson does not refute him merely by kicking a stone.

    From that time to this, I have had prayers answered and seen miracles: each individually could be explained away as a coincidence by a skeptic, but not taken as a whole. From that time to this, I continue to be aware of the Holy Spirit within me, like feeling a heartbeat. It is a primary impression coming not through the medium of the senses: an intuitive axiom, like the knowledge of one’s own self-being.

    This, then, is the final answer to your question: it would not be rational for me to doubt something of which I am aware on a primary and fundamental level.

    Occam’s razor cuts out hallucination or dream as a likely explanation for my experiences. In order to fit these experiences into an atheist framework, I would have to resort to endless ad hoc explanations: this lacks the elegance of geometers and parsimony of philosophers.

    I would also have to assume all the great thinkers of history were fools. While I was perfectly content to support this belief back in my atheist days, this is a flattering conceit difficult to maintain seriously.

    On a pragmatic level, I am somewhat more useful to my fellow man than before, and certainly more charitable. If it is a daydream, why wake me up? My neighbors will not thank you if I stop believing in the mystical brotherhood of man.

    Besides, the atheist non-god is not going to send me to non-hell for my lapse of non-faith if it should turn out that I am mistaken.

  6. Interesting.

    My two cents on the statement about the “public conduct of my fellow atheists was so lacking in sobriety and gravity”

    A couple years ago my friend George Dvorsky at the Transhumanist site Better Humans wrote a very thought provoking piece on this very subject.

    Full Disclosure: the piece quotes me extensively, primarily about my dismal experiences at a recent Atheists convention.

    That being said, I am excited as hell about a Null-A sequel, and wonder of the esteemed Mr. Wright has any other science fiction stories in the pipe. Nothing against his fantasy, but I tend to like the shiny stuff more.

  7. And as for the brights themselves, while they claim intellectual superiority over their religious and supernaturally minded opponents?legitimately or otherwise?they are conspicuously quiet on the nuts-and-bolts issues of how to live and relate to others, and how to deal with the overwhelming totality of existence. Atheism for the sake of atheism is a rather empty and unfulfilling modus operandi, and the brights, should they hope to stand the test of time, must realize this and seek to become more than what they initially appear to be.

    This is a quote from the article you mentioned. Of course, atheism is simply a statement of what people don’t believe. I have to disagree that naturalists are silent on these issues. There are plenty of naturalistic philosophies (and even religions) which address the “nuts-and-bolts issues of how to live and relate to others.” Just google the term “naturalistic religion” sometime. Or visit the American Humanist Association website. I prefer to refer to myself according to the things I believe in, humanist, rationalist, naturalist, Unitarian Universalist, extropian rather than the things I don’t believe in. But that said, the work of spreading the values of critical thinking and skepticism is important in a world swimming in irrational belief systems— even if we take the risk of making some think skepticism is ALL we stand for.

  8. Thank you for your wonderful testimony! It’s amazing to see how God works in peoples’ lives.

  9. Jason Leary // September 23, 2007 at 5:02 pm //

    A fascinating accoount of spiritual experience !

    The debate between determinists and indeterminists, however, should NOT be regarded as invovling any so-called. Soft NON-determinism makes more sense–especially in light of the apparent soundness and plausibility of a *soft* panpsychism . (For some arguments regarding panpsychist ontology see the writings of David Chalmers, Rupert Sheldrake and Hans Moravec) .

  10. Master Asia // November 30, 2008 at 8:14 am //

    As a huge fan of this series I am a little disappointed to see there is no review of “Titans for Chaos” up.  I am however overjoyed to see that Mr. Wright seems to post here.  If he would be so kind I would like him to answer three questions of mine.  First, will you ever make more books in the “Chaos” series?  Secondly, if so would you consider making it about Victor’s quest to liberate the universe. This would of course star Colin and possibly be named “The Butt-kicking Adventures of Colin” while in small print the words “Featuring Victor” would appear.  Finally do you believe Victor and Amelia were able to make love work?

  11. As a Christian myself, I got a kick out of this:

    Besides, the atheist non-god is not going to send me to non-hell for my lapse of non-faith if it should turn out that I am mistaken.

    If I’m wrong, lights out, no harm, no foul.

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