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Issue #124 - December 2005

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School for Monsters

By Cheryl Morgan

Some readers may remember that I was less than impressed with John C. Wrightís science fiction series, The Golden Age. However, my concerns about the books were primarily political rather than literary, and Mr. Wright responded to my criticisms with such good grace that I really wanted to find some of his work I could be enthusiastic about. Recently he has taken to writing "fantasy" (and I use those quotes advisedly). His most recent book, Orphans of Chaos, has been well received in various quarters, and his editor, David Hartwell, assured me that it was free of Libertarian politics, so I gave it a read.

You can tell from the cover that something odd is happening. It features a young woman wearing a leather flying helmet and goggles, and clutching something that might be a crystal ball or some sort of bizarre quantum device. In the background there is an ancient Greek warship. The cover might say "a fantasy novel", but somehow I didnít think I was in for another dose of elves.

What I got instead was something approaching a cross between the X-Men and Dan Simmonsí Olympos. The book is set in an exclusive school in South Wales. There are just five pupils: Victor, who is cool and deliberate; Colin, forever larking about and causing trouble; Quentin, thoughtful and mysterious; Vanity, merry and flirtatious; and our narrator, Amelia, who is something of a tomboy. They are, to a certain extent, caricatures, because they are by no means normal children.

I twisted my hips into the fourth dimension to bring another aspect of my legs into this continuum. Centaurish, I now looked like a sleek silver doe from the waist down. I shifted the aspect of my back, so that my wings, made of white light and surrounded by little echoes of music, dipped into this dimensional plane, also.

Then again, the staff are not normal either. The Headmaster, Mr. Boggin, seems ordinary enough, except that he canít be if the rest of the staff are afraid of him. He seems perfectly able to cow the witchy old Mrs. Wren, and Dr. Fell, who acts like heíd rather be dissecting the children than teaching them. Then again, there is the incredibly beautiful music teacher, Miss Daw, or the loathsome groundsman, Mr. Glum, who is always leering hungrily at the girls.

If you are planning to read this book, it would be helpful to have a dictionary of classical mythology to hand. Like Simmons, Wright is playing with the Olympians, but to keep the reader guessing he uses their variety of names to the full. And I donít mean just swapping between Greek and Latin. Aphrodite, for example, is generally referred to as "Lady Cyprian", the origins of which Iím sure you can all work out.

More to the point, while Simmonsí "gods" were just a bunch of bored post-humans playing at being Olympians, Wrightís gods are the real thing. Except that they are still functioning in 21st Century Britain. This means that they have to come to terms with both modern science and with more recent developments in religion. The former Wright copes with by assuming that the Olympians always knew this stuff, and at least in some paradigms their divine powers can be understood scientifically. Hesphaetus, for example, is very happy with such a view. As for the latter, Wright has developed his own theology, which I donít want to go in here because it is by no means clear where he is going with it. Suffice it to say that one of the characters is a siren who is a devout Christian.

The book is, of course, the first part of a series, so there is potential for lots of development. And book one is primarily introduction. We learn about the children, who they really are, and why their "school" is more of a prison than an educational establishment. Thereís a lot going on amongst the Olympians, and sometimes it seems that the only reason the kids are still alive is because to kill them would upset a delicate political balance. Naturally the kids donít like this much, and are keen to escape.

There are a few irritations with the book. As with so many novels written by Americans but set in the UK, things are not quite right. Wright does the usual thing of writing "England" when he means "Britain", and he seems to think that everywhere west of Bristol is part of Cornwall. British kids are unlikely to use the word "plaid", or even know what it means. But Wright does have some inkling of what Britons might regard as a bad person:

And what about me? What if Phaethusa was, I donít know, a murderess or an adulteress or an environmentalist or something? Someone who couldnít do math, or who liked Tony Blair?

The other thing that got to me was that Wright seems to have found his ideas about how women think by reading romance novels, in particular that type of novel in which the heroine is longing to be Dominated by a Strong Man. He does actually provide a rationale for why Amelia, despite her independent, tom-boy attitude, gets turned on by the thought of being tied up and brutalized, but I canít help but think that it was also a good excuse for writing a spanking scene. If that annoys you, just remember that it could be much worse. At least Wright is not one of those horror writers who is always producing scenes in which women get tortured and killed.

A small note to Torís proofreaders too. The funny little island off the south coast of Australia is called Tasmania. Tazmania is something very different.

Orphans of Chaos - John C. Wright - Tor - hardcover

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Emerald City - copyright Cheryl Morgan - cheryl@emcit.com
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