I just finished reading Orphans of Chaos by John C Wright. When I first started reading this book, I was immediately awed by the writing. How can somebody write something that makes you feel like you are reading something haunting and wise and sad and inquisitive and beautiful? Authors like that amaze me.
I took the book along with me when I went to a book sale at the library in Fullerton. I go early to get a good place in line. But even though I'm early, I can never get there early enough to be at the front of the line. Seriously, I think some of those book scouts and dealers sleep there. Still, I usually end up being one of the first ten people in line. The weird thing is, the longer I stand there, the farther back in line I become. Without even moving. It's a strange phenomenon that must have something to do with something I don't know anything about because I never took advanced math or science in high school.
So, on this occasion I was there at the library, waiting for the sale to start, and I was passing the time reading Orphans of Chaos. One of the other sellers waiting there said to me, "How do you like that book?" And I said, "It's great!" And he said, "Isn't it amazingly written?" And I said, "Yeah!" And he said, "He's a great writer." And I said, "Yeah!" Scintillating conversation like this makes waiting in line a not unpleasant thing to do.
Anyway, here's an example, from page 27, of Wright's brilliant writing:
I do not know how old I was when I found the notes, but I must have been quite young, because I remember that I had to stand on tiptoe to reach the handles of the cabinet where the cleaning things were kept. We had been told to scrub the floor of the dining hall, a task usually done by the servants, because of some prank Colin had pulled involving a bucket of fishheads. None of us was willing to turn Colin in, not even Vanity, even though (I am sure) everyone knew who had done it. This was back before we chose names, so it was Quartinus we were all mad at for getting us in trouble. I remember it was spring, and the great windows were wide open, and I could smell the new-mown grass of the playing field outside, and I remember how dearly I wanted to jump and play, rather than kneel and scrub.
And there's more like that. I wish I could finish off quoting that page and the next, because it's one of the best passages, but you'll just have to read it yourself. In fact, the first five chapters are really lovely. Wow.
The story is told from the point of view of Amelia, who has been raised in isolation as a human but who is really the daughter of the Titan Helion, and she is a fairly sympathetic character, which is always a plus with me when reading a book.
As I read on, however, I started noticing a couple of drawbacks. Not that the quality of writing changed. No, it was something else. A couple of somethings, actually.
One: the story, as I said, is about some offspring of the Titans, except one of the five kids is really Nausicaa - and why she's there, I haven't yet figured out - but they have been kept isolated (imprisoned, really) by their Greek mythology-type captors (like the North Wind, for instance) for many years and raised as human children, with periodic memory erasures when they start figuring out too much so that they reset to the beginning every so often. So the "boys" and "girls" in the story are, I suppose, realistic in the sense that, being in their teen years when the story starts, they are curious about body parts and sex and such, but most of the boys I knew when I was a teenager thankfully had the manners to keep comments regarding such things to themselves in mixed company. And we girls certainly never discussed the subject except amongst ourselves. One of the "boys" in this story, however, is extremely annoying to read about because he can't keep his mouth shut or his hands to himself. His behavior is not a huge drawback for the book; I just don't like reading about annoying characters, is all, and he is an extremely annoying character.
Two: the kids have conversations like this bit from page 156:
"If [says Amelia] I used a crayon to draw the circumference and another crayon to color in the area, the first crayon would lose a bit and the second a bit more. Use a third crayon to color the surface of a balloon, and a fourth crayon to somehow fill in the entire inner volume of the balloon. The first crayon loses a bit and the second crayon loses a whole lot. Rotate the balloon in the fourth dimension to create a hypervolume. The first crayon fills in the volumes of the six balloons that form its hypersurface, the second crayon has to fill in a hypervolume raised to the fourth power. You see the difference would be enormous."
Quentin blinked. "I don't get it."
Victor said, "Why six?"
I said to Victor, "Oh! You're right! There are only six points on the hypersurface where the axis intersects it that form three spheres. I guess I was confusing the number of right-angle intersections with the Kissing Number, which in 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 x2+y2+z2=r2 [those 2s are supposed to be superscript], then a four-sphere would satisfy w2+x2+y2+z2=r2. This implies that for any values where one axis, let's say w, falls to zero . . ."
Victor held up his hand. "Now is not the time."
And I thought, "When is ever the time for talking like that?" For people like me, anyhow, who never took advanced math or science. As King Sylvarresta said when Raj Ahten took his Wit: "Ghaaaah!"
Here's another example (page 316):
I bent that world-line into a knot. The controlling monad for that group of chemicals was inert, and the final causes of the atoms were deterministic, controlled entirely by Newtonian cause-and-effect. The monad tilted in the Fourth Dimension and came awake, bringing its meaning-axis to bear. Quantum uncertainty increased in the atomic mixture. No different than what I had done to restore Quentin's memory to him. New branches and stalks erupted on the monad's tree of possible futures. It was no longer determined and inert.
Actually, now that I'm writing it, I understand it better. I think.
Other readers have mentioned another drawback: that this book is the first of three that tell the story of these Chaos Kids, and as such it is rather introductory in nature, and the real story doesn't get going until book two. I don't know. I agree it's definitely an introductory book. But I was more disappointed to find (around chapter 9) that there were all manner of multi-dimensional mythological creatures involved. I had kind of hoped it was something else, or someone else. At various points throughout the second half of the book, there were some pretty lengthy expository conversations. Those helped me to come to terms with the creatures and what they were doing in the story and why, but they certainly slowed the action. On the other hand, there was enough stuff going on to keep my interest. I wonder: if it had not been so beautifully written, would I have kept going during the slow parts?
But it ends with a small bang that makes me want to read book 2. So that's good, eh?