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More human interest, young grasshopper!

By theredsheep, author of Pyrebound

Apr 17, 2019: Orphans follows four adolescent students at a martial arts temple where they have lived their whole lives. The twist is that this temple specializes in psychic ability as well as kung fu—in fact, the psychic aspect predominates. Our foursome have to use their powers to find out why they’re there and why the temple seems to be gearing up for war.

The mental powers have multiple elaborate applications, as well as broader implications for the story’s society. All very good, what you’d expect from a spec-fic work by a thoughtful writer. In this case, however, the author’s enthusiasm for his lore runs away with the storytelling.

Of the foursome the story focuses on—Xu, Ran, Thom, and Chou—we get to know basically their names, genders, and little more. I couldn’t tell that the narrator Xu was a boy until the fifth update (and I was looking for a stray pronoun to clue me in). I don’t know what they look like, except that Thom is pretty buff, and their personalities aren’t all that developed either (Ran seems more lively and assertive). We get to know two teachers so far; one is nice and the other is horrible.

Part of this may be due to their masters teaching them to repress their emotions—on a related note, the story is told in a rather bloodless and sometimes stilted style thus far. But I think it’s more that the author is more interested in the mind-blowing stuff you can do when you’re a psychic monk (and the political/philosophical implications of same).

To be fair, there are some pretty cool ideas here—think of The Matrix, only powered by ESP—but at some points it doesn’t feel like a narrative so much as sitting down for a couple of beers with Rynjin while he talks about this totally sweet system he made. And he misses some real opportunities to show the human side of his world.

For example, at one point early in the story (not really a major spoiler, but stop reading if you want it absolutely pristine), they learn that their teachers can hear their thoughts. This is a staggering revelation. These kids just learned they have had no privacy whatever for their entire lives. They react with momentary and subdued dismay, then move on. Bear in mind that these are teenagers. Do you remember the kind of stuff that went through your mind when you were a teenager? And how you dealt with it?

Then there’s the setting. It’s . . . called Gao Shansi. It’s sort of temple-ish, I guess. Parts of it are wood, I think, with trees in courtyards. They eat rice with their stew. Most of the people there have Chinese-sounding names, with a few intriguing but unexplored exceptions like "Anya" and "Jacque."

Without fully developed characters in a firmly established setting, the emotional impact of the story is greatly muted. The good news is that the story is otherwise fundamentally sound as far as pacing and such go. It’s only woolgathering a bit. Orphans gets three stars, "worth a look."

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