Author: John C. Wright
Stand Alone/ Series: Volume 1 of Chronicles of Chaos trilogy
Summary: For Amelia and her friends, the strict English boarding school she lives in is all she has ever known. The sprawling estate, bordered by unknown territory on all four sides, is both orphanage, academy, and prison. The school has a large staff, but only five students, none of whom know what their real names are, or even how old they are.
Precocious and rebellious, all five teenagers are more than just prodigies. Amelia can see in four dimensions. Victor can control the molecular arrangement of matter. Vanity can find secret passageways where none existed before. Colin is a psychic. Quentin is a warlock.
And, as time goes by, they’re starting to suspect that none of them are entirely human . . .
Why Did I Read The Book: Thea has been trying to get me to read this for a long time. It is one of her favorite series and when she dared me to read it how could I say no?
Thea has been
nagging insisting that I read this series for a long time now. I believe her obsession passion for these novels even predate the Book Smugglers and if my sieve of a memory isn’t wrong, I think I bought Orphans of Chaos about one year ago. So yes, a long time for a book to be just sitting there, at least for me. Especially a book I wanted to read very much – because 1) I fully trust Thea when she says “Dude you will love this! “ And 2) the title and cover are wicked for lack of a better expression.
Hence, this dare. For me to finally read a book she loves so much and for her to finally read The Shadow of the Wind, a book I adore beyond words.
So I open Orphans of Chaos and it begins:
The estate grounds were, at once, our home, our academy, and our prison. We were outnumbered by campus staff, and by the imposing old Georgian and Edwardian edifices. There were more mares in the stables than there were students in the classrooms. It was only the five of us.
The estate was bound to the North by the Barrows, to the West by the sea cliff, to the East by the low, gray hills of the Downs. What bounds us to the South is a matter of dispute.
The paragraph above sets the mysterious tone of the book – immediately after that, we learn what each of the kids think is the South boundary. And this is when you realise you are reading something utterly different and weird or maybe unique and wonderful. Little by little, things start to unfold – but first we are given a measure of their story (or history) up to that point:
How they are five orphans (or are they?) living in a Boarding school (or is it?) surrounded by these boundaries, rarely leaving the grounds, rarely in contact with other kids. Their teachers (are they?) being the only human beings (hummmm….) they talk to. They don’t know exactly where they are situated (it is Wales? Could be, but then again, maybe not) , or their age (are they 14? 16? Or 20? Possibly 24 even – maybe more, maybe less) and or even their names.
Up until they were 6 (or 8 or 10) they were merely referred to in the order they were born (born?) until they were old enough to pick names for themselves. So they are: Victor Triumph, formerly known as Primus; Amelia Windrose (or Secunda) who is also the narrator of the book, in first-person; Vanity Fair (or Tertia) ; Colin Iblis mac FirBolg, (or Quartinus)(side note: I heart Colin) and Quentin Nemo (or Quintus).
Soon we learn that they have a faint memory of their parents, and their lives prior to the school but these memories tend to…disappear. And these kids who are smarter than anyone else you can think of and constantly engage in discussions about reality, theology, mythology , mathematics and astrophysics are clearly in a league of their own. What is this school? What are they being taught and most importantly why?
Not only that. As they grow older they start to develop these powers or these Talents and things get even more complicated. And so they reach this point where they are questioning everything they have learnt and everything that has happened to them. They try to hold on the faint memories they have. They try to discover things and ask questions that are never answered.
Until one day they learn there is to be a meeting of the Board of Visitors and Governors of the school, the most important ones being one Lord Mavros and the Lady Cyprian. The kids know something is about to happen, they know their destiny is about to be decided. And they must to do something. Quentin and Amelia are able to sneak out and they overhear everything that happens – these strange beings that walk into their school and talk about war, about the universe, about history and about….them.
In a heart racing sequence of events, everything is made clear to them, but Quentin ends up being caught and is made to forget. And it is now down to Amelia to convey to her fellow inmates (because this is what they are really) what is happening.
I cannot elaborate any more than that because it will give away the plot itself, spoil the surprises and therefore spoil the pleasure that is to find out along with the kids themselves who (what?) they are. Are they kids? Are they not kids? Are they even humans? What are these Talents that they have? The easiest way to explain is:
when they look at the unknown and try to explain it, each orphan does it by using their own paradigm, a model to explain things; each has a different type of magic, representing a different version of the universe they get their powers from . Furthermore , each type has “one other type it trumps, one it is trumped by, and one to which it is equal and opposite” so part of the fun is trying to discover each of the teachers – who are their guards and captors and each has its own power that counteract one of the kids’ – powers, and who compliments whose powers. More fun than that even, is to see how exactly how it all works. So far, we have seen only in detail Amelia’s and Quentin’s arch nemesis and how exactly it all pans out is dark and very scary some times. (Plus there are objects that awaken their powers locked in a cabinet. Amelia’s is the hypersphere in the cover. )
In what has got to be one of the most elaborate and erudite plot-driven books I have ever read, my head was spinning with all the implications and at a couple of times I swear I saw smoke coming out of my brain with some of their conversations. I am ok with the more abstract ones – the metaphysics , the theology, the mythology. When things went to the more mathematical and physical aspects – (what the hell is a forth dimension?) :
“There are only six points on the hypersurface where the axis intersects it that form threespheres. I guess I was confusing the number of right-angled intersections with the Kissing Number, which is the case of 4-D equals 24. I was fooled because I was thinking that if a sphere is all points equidistant from a given point, such that ….”
it all sounded Greek to me (<<< clue)
Suffice to say that I am more than happy about those days when I was a teenager reading about mythology and I know my Mars from my Hephaestus, my Aphrodite from my Boreas – I wouldn’t say I would be lost without it but the very basic knowledge that I have did help and made me admire the lengths that the author was taking the story to.
There are many weird things, weird plot developments in this book. In fact, weird is a good key word here. But a weird –good not weird – bad. Like for example Amelia’s relationship with the two boys Victor and Colin and the feelings she harbours for both (let it be noted I root for Colin, who is basically the coolest character) but also with Headmaster Boggin. The latter is a rather inappropriate relationship if you think they are Teacher-Student but at that point you know that is not as straight forward as this. As a secondary character Boggin is fascinating and it is unclear if he is friend or foe but he does have his own agenda.
If you are looking for a light fantasy, with a clear demarcation between right and wrong, this book is probably not for you. In fact, some of the sexual innuendos can be quite disturbing specially with some of the “teachers” leering on the kids. One such disturbing interaction is once again between Amelia, who has some S&M tendencies, and the caretaker that counteracts her powers and stimulates (and possibly even created) these very own tendencies. Count this as a cautionary paragraph.
My one grippe with the book is that I was slightly disappointed with the first person narrative being done solely by Amelia – not because her voice is not interesting because it is. But by having only one narrator, we are denied the other kids’ point of view and they sound and behave so differently from each other, each with its own quirks and very specific voice that I would have loved to read their points of view as well. But in the end, it doesn’t matter too much really. There is a war in the making and they are pawns except that their powers are so titanic
(<<< clue) they are actually much more important than that and whoever control the orphans control …..everything. Or so they seem to think. Because it can also bring Chaos. Maybe. And oh lordy – the freaking cliff-hanger. Do yourself a favour, when (because clearly it should be a matter of “when” and not of “if”) you pick up this book, get books 2 and 3 as well. Your ulcer will thank you. (Mine is screaming “where is the postman” since Monday). If I need to spell it for you then here it goes: Orphans of Chaos is a wickedly awesome, incredibly cool and smart, atmospheric, appealing, mysteriously gripping, intellectually stimulating, weird-wonderful, action packed plot-driven adventure. Notable Quotes/ Parts:
One of these weird plot developments: right after the kids learn from Amelia about who their captors are and they decide to get Quentin’s memory back, they realise they are alone for the first time ever and take that moment of utter freedom to just play in the kitchen and cook anything they wanted. It was like nothing of importance at all was happening which was crazy to read about but at the same time ever so poignant because at that moment they were really a bunch of teenagers enjoying their lives. It was like the calm before the storm, like they knew that that would be the last time for them to enjoy themselves, as they saw themselves or thought themselves to be – kids.
“How long does it take for happiness to be complete? I do not know how long we were in the kitchen. I suppose, objectively , it might have been as little as an hour, or even less. But it seemed to last all day. Like an endless vacation.
The Kitchen was huge. All the brightwork gleamed , all the pots and pans and kettles and knives were ranked and racked and arranged by size. There were two little refrigerators and a big walk-in, and a stovetop the size of Scotland and Wales combined.
And we could have anything we wanted. For the first time in our lives, we made what we fancied in whatever way suited us. An omelette of a dozen eggs; beef that we fried in grease instead of boiling; slabs of bacon as thick as your hand; cooking sherry poured into measuring cups and drunk as toasts. Mostly, we made a mess.
Colin drank coffee for the first time in his life, the grown-ups’s drink. He made a face and pronounced it an abomination. But he drank a second cup, just because it had been forbidden him for so long.”
Don’t mind me, I am in the mood to ramble….
Even though I was very much into the book to the point I stayed at the office after work because I HAD to read and could not spare the 15 minutes that takes me to get home I still had a feeling that there was something missing. I realised then that even though I had a continuous adrenaline kick while reading it, my more emotional side was not as engaged and it all comes down to the fact that Orphans of Chaos is pretty much plot-driven book whereas I am a sucker for character-driven books. This is probably why once I discovered romance, I never looked back – I crave for the emotional connection that character-driven book brings.
I mean it is possible to have both of course, and I think most books I read have this balance: I would mention Meljean Brook, Linnea Sinclair, Nalini Singh, CL Wilson as some of the writers that do this brilliantly. But faced with the choice between having to choose between one OR the other, I think I would pick the character-driven book.
That is not to say that I can’t appreciate, enjoy, LOVE plot-driven novels – case in point, Orphans of Chaos – it is just, to a certain point, I do miss something more.
And I think this is the reason why the book is not a perfect 10.
Verdict: I could say all kinds of erudite and intellectual things about this book, but I will go with: Orphans of Chaos is all kinds of awesome. Read it.
Rating: 9 , damn near perfection!
Reading next: The Talisman by Stephen King