Aug 21, 2010

Ender's Shadow - Orson Scott Card

Fourteen years after the publication of Ender's Game, and only three after the conclusion of the Speaker for the Dead trilogy, Orson Scott Card decided to return to the Enderverse in a very interesting way - by revisiting Ender's time in the Battle School through the eyes of another character - little Bean whose minor role in the original novel gave Card enough freedom to tell quite a different story.

Bean has grown up among the many gangs of homeless children on the streets of post-war Rotterdam. A child of unnaturally sharp intellect, he was self-aware mere days after his birth, and his life has been a lot more vicious than Ender's. Eventually he is found by Sister Carlota - a nun who works for the International Fleet, scouring the world in search for children to recruit in the war against the buggers. Bean is sent to the Battle School where he quickly realizes that he is a lot smarter than everybody else, including the school's tactic genius - Ender Wiggin himself. At first, he finds it difficult to like the boy that every eye in the station is focused on, but eventually Bean becomes one of his most trusted allies. Meanwhile he begins uncovering the many layers of deceit that the adults have built around the children in the school, refusing to play by their rules and opting instead to be their equal.

Ender's Shadow is not the same type of book that Ender's Game was. For one, it is much more smoothly written - decade and a half of experience will do that - but it is also a lot more... ordinary than the original story. Themes of child abuse, exploitation and morals are still noticeable, but this is a book about plot. And since we already have one Ender's Game, I'd call this a good thing, as Bean's story is a tremendous leap forward in the world-building of the Enderverse.

Bean himself is a drastically different character than Ender. He is twice as smart as him, but he also lacks his compassion and humanity - the very qualities that turn Ender into the potential savior of mankind. That is not to say that Bean is an emotionless robot. In fact, he makes quite the progress in the book, and by the end of the story - the climax being Ender's last "game" - he is not only an integral and passionate part of the team (as well as outside overseer, becoming the reluctant secret liaison between the children and the adults), but a key factor in the end result.

Unfortunately, coming back fourteen year later to revisit the same story from a different perspective, hides certain risks, and Card wasn't able to evade all of them. There is one particular problem with Ender's Shadow that rears its ugly head every time Bean and Ender interact. Originally, Bean was not intended to be the supernatural genius that he turned out to be. He was just another kid in the group, maybe smarter than some, a vulnerable mirror image of Ender himself when he first came into the Battle School, but nothing out of the ordinary. And while Card can tell it however he wants in Bean's own private time, whenever he and Ender meet, he must, for consistency's sake, act like he acted in Ender's Game. And that leads to him swallowing his tongue and being uncharacteristically speechless and slow-thinking in every scene he shares with Ender, just so his reactions could look the way they did in the original. This discrepancy is quite annoying, but luckily, said interactions are few and far between.

In the end, Ender's Shadow is not the revelation that Ender's Game is, but it is none the less a terrific book. Card's style is more mature and sure-footed, his story-telling skills are honed to perfection, and his world-building is way more complex, revealing many aspects of both Earth, the Battle School and the International Fleet that previous books haven't touched upon. Ender's Shadow is the beginning of the so-called "Shadow series" which - just like Ender's story - sharply changes direction after the first installment. In this case, it leads to the intrigues and war that break out on Earth after the end of the Game, and the ways that different countries try to use the genius children of the Battle School for their own ends. I am planning to reread those (as well as the Speaker trilogy) and will review them some time in the future. Meanwhile, I greatly recommend Ender's Shadow, especially if you've liked Ender's Game. But even if you haven't, it's quite a different type of story and might still win you over.


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