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Just Finished (For the third time) - 'Mirror Dance' by Lois McMaster Bujold

Thursday, February 14, 2013

2005 Nebula Award Nominee- 'Orphans of Chaos' by John C. Wright

It can be telling sometimes when only one book out of a series is nominated for a Hugo or Nebula award.  You have to ask if maybe that one book was the one shining point in an otherwise dull series.  Maybe it was the climax of a series, where all the hard grunt work an author had put in during the previous novels paid off at the culmination.  Maybe it's like 'Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire' and the Hugo selection panel finally bowed to overwhelming public demand, or it could be that, like Terry Pratchett's 'Going Postal' or Marion Zimmer Bradley's 'The Heritage of Hastur' nomination committees are finally giving a little recognition to some of these series that, while none of the individual works stand out are overall deserving.  The way that raises my eyebrows the most is when only the first book in a series wins or is nominated for an award, and the rest are left in the cold.  This is is the case with 'Orphans of Chaos.'

Part of a series, Orphans is followed by Fugitives and then Titans, of Chaos naturally.  The opening novel has a lot of original points, and certainly involved a lot of legwork on the part of the author.  The story involves a group of children (who are gods) that are being held hostage by another group of gods. The author goes out of his way to include almost every single Roman, Greek, and Egyptian God, as well as a few characters from Norse Mythology.  He uses some of these well known characters' original names, and brings up quite a few of the lesser known Gods as well.  It took a little research for me to figure out who 'Phobeter' or 'Alcinuous' were.  It can be a fun game to play when a new character appears to try and figure out which mythological character they are based only on Wright's description and whatever crazy name he decides to dig up and give them.

Wright sets up an interesting system of magic in the novel which deserves mention as well.  Though there are a variety of characters from different mythologies there are only four distinct styles of magic, which surprisingly do not conform to the four elements.  Each one can cancel out one other, draws against a wielder of the same magic, and fights well against the two remaining styles.  It's really quite simple compared to the type of magic you would often encounter in a similar book, and serves an important purpose sorely lacking in a lot of Fantasy novels by creating rules for the world.  Too often when an author throws magic into a book it is just that, magic, the solution to any problem.  Unless an author truly wants to show the reader that magic is capable of anything (like 'Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norell') they need a  few rules for the magic they introduce.  Too often in fantasy novels the rules of the magic aren't fully explained, allowing for the sort of Deus Ex that crops up in a lot of work (The Sword of Truth series is a good example).  Wright's system of magic works great at preventing this, the only problem being that often the magical  battles between the characters can begin to feel like an extremely complicated version of rock, paper, scissors.  Which is never good.

The Chaos Trilogy (I made that name up, the trilogy has no set name) has been compared to an 'Adult version of Harry Potter' by several reviewers, which is an apt comparison, though I will get into the 'Adult' portion of that in a minute.  The novel separates itself from the Potter books in one way by the magic system I talked about.  The Potter novels contain magic that can ostensibly do anything, often any limitations on the magic seem to arise only to serve the means of the plot.  I love Harry Potter but we have to admit that there is no concrete system to what's going on with the magic in those novels (which is fine, that's not what those novels are about).  Chaos at least is structured in such a way that the magical system stays true to itself.

This is an important point for all genre writers to remember, and especially SF writers.  A reader can buy into anything, whether it's talking trees or interstellar spaceships people will believe it, as long as the people react to it in a relatable manner and the structure of the magic (or spaceships, or tree-talk) stays true to the internal world the author has created.  You need to have a healthy suspension of disbelief to read any SF or Fantasy, and authors need to work hard to maintain it.  Staying true to the world an author creates, and obeying the rules they have set up is integral to this, and Wright does a good job. 

So, I've talked about the originality of the character even though they were ancient myths, and, I've talked about the internal integrity of the system the author uses for magic which are both good points.  The only thing left to talk about with Wright's novel is the sex, because it will make you feel dirty.  Sometimes I feel like writing instructors need to start telling potential authors that the place to air your sexual hangups is not in a mass produced novel.  I am not against sex in literature, I loved 'The Void Captain's Tale,' I made a fool of myself gushing over 'The Man Who Folded Himself,' and 'The Masks of Time' is one of the books that got me interested in SF in the first place.  I have no problem with sex in literature, it's a topic that invades our lives and needs to be explored, but it is one thing to have a ship piloted by orgasm, or a time traveler have sex with himself, and it is something completely different to have your teenage female protagonist dressed up like a schoolgirl and get aroused by being spanked in a multi-page passage of your novel. 
One of these things is not like the others.  Almost every review you read for this novel will discuss the sexual aspect of the book, if people don't like the novel that's why, if people do like the novel they find an excuse for it.  The odd thing is it's no more, and often quite less, explicit than some of those other novels I mentioned.  The character getting spanked in Orphans is a much less graphic scene than say, the oral sex scene in Void Captain, but why does it feel so much dirtier?  The problem is that the sexuality in Orphans does not contribute to the plot, which implies to the reader that it is only in the book because the author wanted to write about it.  Which makes me feel gross.  If an author has something interesting to say about sex (or something funny, or weird, or anything at all) I don't mind reading about it, if you want to tell me what gets you off then stick to literotica.

I've written before about judging a work based on it's own merits.  We should not take into account the author's personal life, political views, or other works when judging a piece of literature.  But I believe when a book is a part of a series we do need to take a look at all the books of that series to truly understand the worth of a novel, I discussed this at length in my review for 'A Dance with Dragons' (and that's the reason I'll really have to rewrite that review when the series is finished).  So, while the rest of the books in the chaos series did not receive any nominations and I won't be reviewing them here, I do believe it's important to look at the series as a whole, because they inform upon the work that was nominated.
Which brings us back to Nebula nominations.  This is the only book in the series to be nominated for any awards.  It's not the only book that this has happened to, 'To Your Scattered Bodies Go' by Farmer was the first and only novel in the Riverworld series to be nominated, and with good reason.  But, we have to take a close look at what Wright brought to the table with Orphans, and what was missing in the later installments.  He created a magical world, one in which children were finding their powers and trying to escape their omnipotent captors.  A world bound by concrete rules regarding that magic that the author was able to stick to throughout the story.  He populated that world with interesting characters, and the story he told in that world, while not necessarily the most original, was at least compelling enough for the reader to forgive him if he took a few authorial liberties into unnecessary sexual exposition.  The first novel in the series contains enough promise and originality that we can optimistically hope that the rest of the series will continue in the same direction.  That optimism is what got the book nominated, just the same as our optimism about The Expanse series is what garnered 'Leviathan Wakes' a nomination even though the series isn't complete yet.  In 'Orphans of Chaos' that optimism is never realized and completely gone by the time the series is complete.  In the wake of those series that didn't live up to the promise of their first novel you almost have to wonder if Farmer or Wright would have been better off not even completing them, leaving them unfinished with that optimism still intact.

As the series goes on the reader realizes that creating that world and that system was all that Wright brought to the table.  As the series progresses the value of the story steadily decreases, the originality of the world and magical system wears away, and the amount of sexual 'ick' steadily begins to rise.  At the end of the novel almost everything seems to revolve around placing his female protagonist into sexually questionable scenarios, with the character of Colin harassing her at every turn.  It comes to a point where the reader almost feels culpable in belittling the character, as it becomes increasingly impossible to buy into her enjoying her treatment (which is what the author would have us believe).  While the world Wright has created, and the rules he governs it by have been well thought out, it is his characters that ultimately fail the reader, that break the suspension of disbelief.

There are more than enough novels out there that belittle and victimize women.  This novel doesn't even present that victimization in a manner inspired enough to provoke discussion, only to titillate.  And that is perhaps the lowest cut of all, that to read Wright's series he asks not that we simply view the belittlement of women in his writing, but that we enjoy it.

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