John C. Wright, Fugitives of Chaos
reviewed by Danielle L. Parker
Publisher: Tor, 2006
Hardcover: $24.95 U.S.
Length: 319 pages
In Fugitives of Chaos (see my earlier review of its prequel, Orphans of Chaos), we once again have those four pubescent teenagers, hostages of the Olympian gods, trying to break for freedom. Amelia Windrose, the pulchritudinous blonde babe among the two boys and two girls, has managed to regain her memories of their previous attempt at escape in spite of the sinister ministrations of their captors — Dr. Fell, Grendal the peg-legged monster, and the witchly Erichtho, a. k. a. Mrs. Jenny Wren. And there’s also the questionably motivated Headmaster Boggin to contend with, who moonlights as the powerful and sexy god of the North Wind. (I confess I wanted more Boggin in this sequel, but alas, I didn’t get it. I’m afraid I found the muscular, duplicitous Headmaster sexier than Victor-The-Robot).
The four students represent four enemies of the Olympian gods: Amelia is a Greek goddess from hyperspace; Victor, an advanced, ultra-scientific, Spock-ultra-rational from outer space; Quentin, a magician from the underworld; Colin, from dreamland; and Vanity, the last, harks back to Homer’s Nausicaa. Each views the universe through a different paradigm. (This can get confusing, I’m afraid).
Separate, they are vulnerable. Together, the four hope to stand off both the Olympian gods and, if need be, their own kind, in order to stop the war that will destroy what they grew up in and now consider home: the small world of mortal man. Unfortunately, there are factions on both sides clamoring to start the War to End All Wars. In fact, there’s an unknown party, one of the Olympian gods, who wants to completely erase everything and just start over from his divine throne...
This is, as I mentioned the second fantasy series where Mr. Wright has drawn heavily from Greek mythology. I can understand why. Besides his favorite Promethean myth, the Greek gods are wonderful actors on any stage: pride writ large; ambition, ego, jealousy, and (all too often) cruelty run amok. Mr. Wright’s take on them is sly and amusing.
Yet Mr. Wright’s series is set in, and of, our time, and there’s no convincing explanation as to why the Greek gods and other creatures of ancient mythology are still kicking in a world that has turned its collective back. What all gods seem to require is worship (the one unforgivable sin against any Greek god, punished by the most horribly out-of-proportion cruelty, being failure to properly acknowledge their prideful godhead). So how are they getting that worship nowadays? Mr. Wright implies that lust serves Aphrodite; war, of course, Ares, and that is their relevance to modern man (i.e., how they are worshipped). The gods, then, are merely expressions of human emotions? Or inspirations of such emotions? Eros comes into the room, and humans get lusty? Where’s Mr. Wright’s free will in that?
Such seems a weak explanation to this reader. Alas, there is no reference to Christianity, except the contempt, mockery, and dislike all the protagonists feel for it. There’s a scene in Fugitives that still has the power to shock, when young Colin goes on a rampage during the (Christian, of course) service. His young peers are no more than amused by his taunting blasphemy. I was not.
Mr. Wright’s preferred universe is clearly the human, not the divine. That, I can understand: Wright celebrates a human will free of all divine intervention, and considers us prisoners of religion. But a humanity who turned its back on paganism for something greater deserves more than to have its choice singled out for ridicule and contempt. It’s an easy out to simply dismiss the entire practice of Christianity (Islam and Buddhism don’t get a mention here) with a sneer. Mockery requires no effort from anyone. If you want to write about moral, spiritual and ethical issues, (which I think you do, Mr. Wright), I expect a little — a lot — more from you than that.
I’ve been a fan of Mr. Wright since his wonderful Golden Age science fiction trilogy. To my mind, he’s not yet matched the brilliance of that work in his later writings. Still, if you can overlook what feels like some unfortunate authorial prejudices, the Chaos series has a sense of slightly naughty fun and sly humor that distinguishes it from Wright’s other works. Enjoy!
Copyright © 2007 by Danielle L. Parker