Book Review: Ender in Exile

[Originally posted November 20, 2008]

Without a doubt, Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game is one of the most beloved science fiction novels of the last 30 years. The subsequent series and off-shoot series have shown Card’s ability to take both aspects — the action and the philosophy — of the original novel and expand them very well. And Ender’s Game is definitely one of my favorite novels ever.

As a result of that, I’ve actually written several essays about the novel while in school. One essay which I wrote in my college freshman English class compared and contrasted it with a novel by a Russian author, though I barely remember that essay at all anymore and I believe I lost the file several years ago when a hard drive crashed. Another essay was written for my science fiction literature class with John Kessel and in that essay I was evaluating the notion of hero in science fiction by examining several of the landmark novels in science fiction — Frank Herbert’s Dune, Alfred Bester’s The Stars my Destination, Ender’s Game, and possibly a fourth novel, though again my memory is fuzzy and the file is not currently available, though hopefully I’ll be able to find it.

When I was discussing this essay with Dr Kessel before writing it, he suggested that I find an essay which had been written by science fiction author and critic Norman Spinrad. In that article, Spinrad did the very same thing as I was planning, using those same three books that I named and one of his own novels. In his article, he actually took the same stance I did on the protagonists of Dune and The Stars my Destination being the standard hero and anti-hero, respectively. But he raised a very interesting point about Ender in Ender’s Game. Though he grows as a character and as a person, he doesn’t make a conscious decision, knowing the full repercussions of his action, when he destroys the Bugger homeworld and as such is in fact a failed hero, because a hero is the person who makes the tough decisions. Ender was under no pressure to make the right decision, he was just under the pressure of what he thought was very extreme training. And because he never had to make that decision, he was cheated by Card out of his chance to be a true hero. Spinrad says that the true story of Ender’s heroism was the story of his life from the end of the war to the time he is an adult while he comes to terms with the truth of what he did. It is the story between the end of Ender’s Game and Speaker for the Dead.

Ender in Exile is that story. But as Card notes in the after word of the novel, it really could not have been written without the Shadow series having been written first. But I’m not really sure how much Ender actually grows as a character in this story. Without providing any spoilers, all of his actions are made without any seeming struggle on his part and the only way he comes to any closure with the knowledge of his having committed xenocide is through no effort of his, but through the accidental discovery of the remaining bugger queen egg. And that event isn’t even the final culmination of the story. Instead a face-off with one of Bean and Petra’s lost children serves as such. And there, the growth is in Ender’s opponent, not in himself. Ender is locked into being the same person he was in the original series. There is no growth from the time he is 13 at the end of the war to the time he’s a fully grown man on his way to meet the third known sentient species on Lusitania in Speaker for the Dead.

Storywise, Ender in Exile is a very engaging book and does much to resolve some inconsistencies between the first series and the second and is successful at tying up most of the story lines left open at the end of Shadow of the Giant. At times, Card moralizes a bit too strongly, and though his respect for the men and women of the military is very appropriate with regard to events in the real world, they seem somewhat forced in the world of the story. And for the central character, it seems that Card has failed again. So, happy as I am to see this chapter in Ender’s story told, I’m disappointed that it didn’t come through for me the way I had hoped.

Book Review: The First Law

[Originally posted January 11, 2009]

Joe Abercrombie’s The First Law is a three book fantasy series which is heavier on sword than sorcery. The basic story centers on The Union, a medieval style kingdom which is threatened on two fronts by the barbarian hordes of Northmen and the religious zealot empire to the south, Gurkhul. The main characters are the most-feared Northman warrior, Logen “Bloody-Nine” Ninefingers, a Union military officer and minor noble, Jerzal dan Luthar, a crippled Union Inquisitor (ie. torturer) Glotka, and a several thousand year old mage, Bayaz.

When I first started reading the first book in the series, The Blade Itself, for the first 50 pages or so, I have to admit that I wasn’t really comfortable with the writing style. I’m not sure why exactly, but it just felt very stilted and undeveloped. After I got into the story, I no longer had any problem with the writing, but I don’t know if that was a result of its improvement, or just my enjoyment of the story. And I did enjoy the story. After all, I read all three of the books in less than a week. The story itself has a very solid plotline, though nothing there is entirely surprising. You have character growth, a grand quest for a magical item to defeat the enemy, several pitched battles, and interesting development of the relationships between the characters.

But what is really striking is the way that Abercrombie takes the standard fantasy character archetypes and twists them in ways that are quite unexpected. And I have to admit, that as a result I ended up not liking characters that I expected to like. Some of this twisting is done through the actions that the characters take, and some through the things they say. For example, what really startled me was that Bayaz, who I expected to be this wise and generous mage who evokes a spirit of egalitarianism and promotes the worth of the common man actually promotes the view that the common man is too stupid to care for himself and that he needs the nobility to care for and protect him. There are similar flaws in all of the characters, though developed to different extremes. I don’t want to give too much of the story away, but in some cases, I felt that Abercrombie sort of cheated in how he went about presenting some of those flaws, violating the writing principle of “Show, don’t tell”, which weakens the overall effect of the story.

Rating: 4/5 stars

Definitely worth reading, simply because of the great action writing and the turning on their heads of traditional fantasy archetypes.