Orphans of Chaos
by John C. Wright

Review by
William H. Stoddard
Tor: New York, 2005
320 pages June 2006


John C. Wright came to the attention of Prometheus readers [Libertarian Futurist Society] with his Everness novels, which took a distinctive approach to fantasy: mythic high fantasy drawing on many different sources and set in the present-day world. Orphans of Chaos, the first of a new series — The Chronicles of Chaos — applies the same approach to a specific fantasy motif: the school for students with mysterious powers, along the lines of Roke in Ursula Le Guin's Earthsea novels or Hogwarts in J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter series — or, looking further afield, Professor Xavier's School for Gifted Youngsters in X-Men, which trains apprentice superheroes.

Most such schools strive to help their students master their unusual abilities. Wright's has a different goal: to restrain its unusual students. In some ways, Orphans of Chaos is comparable to the classic television series The Prisoner (recipient of a Libertarian Futurist Society's Hall of Fame award for its treatment of the theme of resistance to authority).

Wright's mythic premise in Orphans of Chaos gives it a somewhat narrower focus than in the Everness books. Its starting place is Greek mythology, and in particular the generational succession of the Greek gods. Many of its characters actually are Greek gods, typically under pseudonyms that invite the reader to guess who he's referring to. The combination of the ancient Olympians with a modern British setting is sometimes a bit odd — but gives the story a very British flavor.

There has been Internet discussion of John C. Wright's Christian beliefs and their likely effect on his further books. There certainly are references to Christianity in this book — but of a very odd sort. The one character who claims to be Christian, and who offers instruction in Christian beliefs to the protagonist at a moment of spiritual crisis, identifies herself as a Donatist, an adherent of a set of beliefs that was classified as a heresy before the fall of Rome. (In brief, the Donatists taught that the validity of a priest's office and of the sacraments he performed depended on his own moral character; they rejected any pragmatic view of the church as an organization and saw it purely as a community of the holy.)

There is also an elaborate story of creation that fits very closely to the myths of Gnosticism, a different and even more radically unorthodox Christian heresy, though one that, much more than Donatism, has continued to attract sympathizers. In some ways, Gnosticism's rejection of divine authority will appeal to libertarians; in others, it's more akin to Marxism's promise of a post-scarcity world of total freedom than to any standard libertarian view of freedom. In Orphans of Chaos, though, the Gnostic themes appear to exist more to define the situation of the characters than to convey a view of the real world. Readers looking for a religious message, whether in hope or in dread, will be puzzled to find one.

Wright's characterization is highly stylized, and his language is often deliberately archaic or mannered, as was also the case in the Everness books. Not all readers will find his writing accessible. Readers specifically looking for political and social themes probably won't want to try: any applicability of these books to such themes is at quite a distance and little relevant to their main themes. They're better read for other reasons: for the interest of puzzling out Wright's references and his odd slant on classical myth, or for the sake of the characters themselves, whose story is much more sharply focused on than in his previous work.


© 2006 William H. Stoddard

First published in Prometheus, Summer 2006
Libertarian Futurist Society (LFS)

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