Orphans of Chaos by John C. Wright, Tor Science Fiction, 2005
There are these odd kids at a boarding school, and they have magical powers. Let’s stop there. That sounds like a good book, right? Well, ok, so you’re reading along and you’re receiving these masterfully dealt hints about these strange kids and their magical powers and you’re intrigued, because there are secret corridors appearing out of nowhere because a character thinks of them, and time and the movement of the moon don’t match up during a science experiment, and the kids get measured all the time. Who measures 16-year olds, right? It all sounded so cool!
And then our heroine gets it in her head to be a bad representation of smart young women everywhere. Amelia may be able to travel into the 4th dimension. She may be curious and bold, capable and gifted, but then she thinks things like this: every girl who gets rough-housed by a boy is really thinking how awesomely good it feels to be powerless in the face of his manliness, and that, while she wants to kiss her brother-figure, she wants more to not want to kiss him and for him to steal a kiss.
Come on, tell me if she was your roomate at this crazy boarding school, you wouldn’t: 1) relentlessly make fun of her, 2) tell her to go to a women’s studies class, 3) wonder if her definition of romance was derived from a bad romance novel (and not even “bad” in the “it’s so bad it’s good” way, but, bad, like, cliched, unrealistic, discomfortingly sexist bad way.)
Then she and Vanity beguile their watcher and break free from supervision by baring their cleavage, hiking up their skirts, and putting on maid aprons! No, seriously. This scene happens. Feminism FAIL.
And while that may have been the worst thing to crush a narrative high since The X-Files Season 7 (well, it all started to go wrong in season 6, didn’t it?), it turns out the big secret about these kids is that they can jump narrative arcs and appear in Greek mythology – or Neil Gaiman novels. Or that’s what I thought was happening in the middle. Dea tells me I can’t actually give away the big secret of the book in my review. So, I’ll be good and keep you unspoiled, but you should know that the reveal of the origin of these children was the point at which I decided I wasn’t going to finish this trilogy.
I love an author who can talk about the fourth dimension, right? I was impressed by this book, and I think I only got cranky about the plot after the main character was so badly characterized. I felt gross, and that made the rest of the novel really impossible to enjoy. I wanted to like the talking dog, and the children refusing to take their power-inhibiting medicine, and the emerging power struggle between the adults. But then Amelia would look at one of her “brothers” and wish his hands were on her, and not in the clever or at least sympathetic teen angst way, but rather in a male- writer- misunderstands- female- character- motivation way, and I’d want to put the book down. It’s smart fantasy book with a good side of sci-fi themes with a strong female lead, and I really wanted to get lost in the series, but Amelia had one too many sexualized, simplified, “helpless girl at the heart of a smarter and more powerful man” moments and I had to let it go.
On the other hand, this book is actually an award winner, so you may like it. Maybe it’s just one of my squicks. Or it’s like people who genetically can’t eat cilantro because it tastes like soap and thus are denied the majority of pre-packed guacamoles and salsas. It’s just not to my tastes.
Read this book if you’ve read all the other smart sci fi out there, and you’re desperate for more. Or if you like books with boarding schools. Or, if (and this is a big if) you like romance novels from the 80s.
Andrea’s Random Awesomeness Count:
Vampires: I think there might have been one! But he was in the Greek pantheon, so, maybe not quite the same?