I generally don’t write reviews of the SF/F I read on here, as I try to keep my reviews focused on the blog’s topic, but I’ve been reading John C. Wright’s blog and linking it here for a while now, and so I’m going make an exception. The reason being that I’ve lately read the first three of Wright’s major series and he is definitely worth the exception.
To kick things off, Wright is simply the best living SF/F writer I’ve read; the only living writers whose abilities possibly compare are Orson Scott Card at his peak (ie. back in the time of the original Ender’s game series) and GRR Martin at his peak (ie. the first three books of a Song of Ice and Fire), and I’d say Wright even surpasses them. Wright’s writing style is amazing, and the only criticism I could possibly make of it is he does not write quite as well as Tolkien.
I read his first three series in order of publication (with the exception of Orphans of Chaos which I read right after Golden Age), so I’ll review them here in that order:
The Golden Oecumene
This is the best SF series I’ve read in a long time, possibly ever. I bought the the Golden Age and waiting two weeks for Amazon to deliver the Phoenix Exultant was almost agonizing. I would put the series almost on par with Dune and Starship Troopers (ie: my second and third favourite SFF books ever, after LotR). The scope of the series is huge and he fits so many ideas, ideas which would require whole books from lesser writers to address, in perfect harmony within the series. It is mind-boggling how much he managed to fit so together and how perfectly he managed to do so. The plot is a fantastic and novel take on the fallen scion archetype, weaving numerous story threads together seamlessly, and capping it off with an amazing final confrontation combining logic, philosophy, and science perfectly.
I’d need to be able to write as well as Wright to be able to describe just how great the writing is, so I’ll just say it’s excellent. Wright uses a quasi-classical/Shakespearean English style which he combines with future-jargon that sets a unique tone to the writing that brings the story alive. I can not adequately emphasize how good the writing is. On top of this, he even threw in strong characterization and character development, something sometimes missing from hard SF, which tends to focus on ideas over characters.
Also, Wright demonstrates exactly how to write good ideological fiction. Objectivism subtly permeates and under-girds the series and this underlying philosophy is even essential to the final confrontation, yet at no time does it feel like Wright is preaching or shoving ideology down your throat. The objectivist philosophy is there, but not explicit; it exists in the background, central to the plot and theme, yet barely noticeable and never preachy. Writers of both the right and left should read this and understand how Wright did it; this is how your write ideological fiction.
I guess I should make some criticism, so here’s the only criticism I could come up with: There was a formatting error in what I think was the second book, where a couple extra lines spaces where added in the middle of a sentence. That’s really the only criticism I could come up with and how petty it is should illustrate just how good this series is.
On the other hand, there is one possible warning for this series: because the scope of the ideas presented are so wide and so deep, someone new to SF might struggle with keeping up. Related to this, there’s a lot of future-jargon thrown at you with minimal explanation; everything makes sense in context and is understandable if you are familiar with basic SF concepts, but if you’re not used to SF-jargon or standard SF ideas it may be hard to comprehend. This is not written for SF newbs: if you do not have a basic familiarity with SF staples like super-AI’s and mind-uploading it will be a tough go. And if you’re like Matt Forney and hate “fantasy babble” this is not the book for you. In other words, if you dislike science fiction don’t read this, because it is hard science fiction for hardcore SF fans.
If you have any like of SF at all, read this series right now, and get all the books at once. (I only bought the first book to test it out, and I greatly regretted it during that overly-long two week wait for the second). I can not overstate how great it is. If you hate SF, this is SF. You can buy the Golden Age, Phoenix Exultant, and the Golden Transcendence at the links.
War of the Dreaming (Chronicles of Everness)
This two part series blends pagan, classical, Judeo-Christian, and English mythology together in an epic fantasy tale. The story is unique and avoids fantasy tropes, while at the same painting an unworldly, fantastical version of our own world.
The plot and characterization are solid: the two main characters, Galen and Raven, undergo well-done coming-of-age and redemption, respectively, arcs, but the highlights are the world-building and the writing. The writing is excellent, once again having a tinge of classical/Shakespearean English to it. Again, there’s some ‘fantasy babble’, although far less than in the Golden Oecumene; it should be accessible to those with a passing familiarity with mythology.
The world John C Wright builds is fantastic in both sense of the word. The breadth of the mythology used and woven together is fantastic, and one would need a strong classical education to get it all, far stronger than the one I got in the public education system. I understood many (most?) of the references. but repeatedly, a mythological reference would be made that I would realize I was missing; I ended up consulting wiki a number of times. The breadth of references and the ease with which they’re worked in demonstrate a very high level of knowledge of myth by Wright. Yet, despite the depth of knowledge required to understand every nuance of the book, missing a reference never detracted from the story. Knowing the mythology added to the enjoyment, but there was never a point where a lack of knowledge made you miss a part of the story. The integration of mythology characters and themes was well-done indeed.
This series is heavily Randian, even more so than the Golden Oecumene. The ideological underpinnings of the novel are far less subtle; one of the protagonists, you’ll know which one if you read it, could have easily been named John Galt, but even so, it never becomes preachy or off-putting. The objectivism is worked seamlessly into the plot and never detracts from the book. This is another good example of how to write ideological fiction.
I have no criticisms of this series, it was excellent. If you like fantasy, you won’t regret buying these books. Even if you don’t typically enjoy fantasy, this is not your stereotypical story of elves and dwarves, but rather a story of myth, so you’d probably like it anyways. I recommend reading books the Last Guardian of Everness and Mists of Everness. You can buy them at the links.
Chronicles of Chaos
This series is a weaving of classical mythology into the orphanage-of-fear trope. I was skeptical of this series, because these orphans-at-a-boarding-school-discover-their-powers-and-come-into-their-own has never been something that I’ve particularly cared for. I’ve always preferred focus on ideas, world-building, action, and plot to character development and characterization and these orphan-type stories tend to focus on the last to the detriment of the first three.
I did buy Orphans of Chaos at the same time I bought the Golden Age and it was excellent. The writing was once again amazing, although, it had less of the classical/Shakespearian English influence to it than Wright’s other books. The escape-the-evil-orphanage plot was OK, but only OK. Even so, the writing was great enough to really pull it along and keep me engaged. The parallel discovering-the-hidden-secret-of-the-orphange plot was excellent. The slow reveal of the hidden secrets and the world-building of the world outside the orphanage really drew me into the book. I was hooked and immediately ordered the next two books upon finishing.
Sadly, in the second book, Wright made the only major misstep I’ve seen throughout the three series I’ve read. I’ll try to avoid spoiling it, but the beginning of the second book pretty much undid the advances of escape-the-evil-orphanage plot of the first book, so the world-building and the hidden-secrets plot more or less stalled as the escape-the-orphanage plot, ie. the most mediocre part of Orphans of Chaos. took up the first half of the second book. Wright would have been far better off combining the last half of the first book and the first half of the second book, cutting a bit of filler, and reducing the series down to two books. Had he done so, I would probably be praising this as highly as his other two series.
Following this misstep I just wasn’t as engrossed in the series as I could have been. I haven’t finished it yet, I’m about half-way through the third book, but so far the second and third books have been merely good rather than fantastically amazing like his other series. I’m hoping for a really good pay-off at the end.
The reason for the books being only good is the same reason I was originally skeptical of the story, I don’t care for orphan-type stories. Wright has built a huge interesting world and has a compelling hidden-secrets plot woven into this, but instead of putting the main focus on exploring this fascinating world, he instead focused on character development and the escape plot. Even after the escape-the-evil-orphanage plot wrapped up, instead of going full bore into exploring the world and developing the hidden-secrets plot, he morphed it into an avoid-being-recaptured plot.
I want to read about interactions between the Greek gods and the titans and get enveloped in the struggle for dominion over the mortal world. Instead I’m reading ‘while hiding away from her schoolmaster will the teenage girl main character remain free? Will she win the heart of the aloof sigma or will her feelings develop for the manly alpha jokester?’. I was really getting into the world-building and the divine struggle, but Wright keeps pulling the book back to the main character’s personal struggles. There’s just enough divine-struggle plot rationed out here and there to keep me reading, but I want more. I’m really hoping the last half of the third book really dives more into this.
I may be painting an overly negative picture at this point, so I’d like to note that the last two books of this series aren’t bad, just disappointing. If I hadn’t just read his other two series, I would probably think this was a good series, but it just doesn’t compare to his other two series and the first book. After all the hype of eagerly waiting for Fugitives of Chaos to arrive ( it took two months before I cancelled my Amazon order and ordered it elsewhere), it just didn’t live up to it.
This series is good, it is well-written, with good characterization. There is very little ‘fantasy babble’ in this series and that which there is easily understandable as it is written from the perspective of a teenager. The execution of what it does is done exceedingly well, but what it is focused on doing is just not my cup of tea and it put the parts that I really do like on the back-burner.
I’d recommend that you buy Wright’s other books first. When (not if) you like those books, pick this series up, but don’t make this your first foray into his books, as it is merely good as compared to the magnificence of his other two series.
If you do like evil-orphanage plots and really enjoy character development over plot and world-building, then this book is highly recommended, as it executes this well. Also, this is probably the most friendly series towards those who are not SF/F nerds.
You can buy books Orphans of Chaos, Fugitives of Chaos, and Titans of Chaos at the links.
I can not praise Wright highly enough. Wright is single-handedly making me seriously consider buying an e-reader simply so I can read his output from Castalia House as soon as it comes out. If you enjoy SF/F you need to immediately read the Golden Oecumene and War of the Dreaming series, they are fantastic series. Put off the Chronicles of Chaos series until you’ve finished those, as it’s good, but only good.
I am very much looking forward to reading his Count to the Eschaton Sequence. I’m putting it off, because it has three books still to go, and I don’t want another aSoIaF situation where I’m impatiently waiting 5 years so I can read what happens next. But the instant the publishing announcement is made for Count to Infinity, I’m buying the entire series.
Anyway, John C Wright is an amazing author, read him.