Ender’s Shadow, by Orson Scott Card

enders-shadow-by-orson-scott-card coverGenre: Science Fiction
Publisher: Tom Doherty Associates
Published: 1999
Reviewer Rating: four and a half stars
Book Review by Burt Smith

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Ender’s Shadow is the fifth book by Orson Scott Card that is set in the universe of Ender’s Game. However, unlike most books that are part of a continuing series, it goes back and tells the original Ender’s Game story from a completely different point of view, that of Bean, a very minor character in the original story, though as Ender’s Shadow reveals, not quite as minor as it appeared.

The novel works flawlessly as a stand-alone story. It’s been over a decade since I read Ender’s Game, and I intentionally avoided re-reading it so I’d have a fresh perspective and to see how well it covers the events of the Bugger War for a new reader.

We meet Bean at the age of four, scrambling to stay alive as part of the starving orphan gangs of Rotterdam. Against all odds, he makes it into Battle School, where he continues to struggle, pitted both against the adults and the other children. The adults don’t quite trust him, while the children dislike him because of his size and intellect. He spends his entire time hearing about the famous Ender, finally meeting him and ending up as part of his army, where he struggles to out-do his famous counterpart. As with Ender’s Game, the story continues for a bit past the victory (not much of a spoiler there) – Bean, just like Ender, continues to manipulate events beyond the battle’s end.

One of the main reasons that Ender’s Shadow doesn’t read like a rehash of Ender’s Game is that the character it is centered is only present for about a quarter of the original novel. The mysteries of Bean’s heritage and origins, which play a large part in the story of his life, are barely mentioned, if at all, in the first book. This gives Card a lot of leeway to fill in the gaps with an interesting story, which he does quite well.

Orson Scott Card is one of the select few authors who writes characters that one can believe in, even care about. Many authors can tell fascinating stories with interesting, gripping plots that leave us cold as far as the story is concerned. Not so for Card; often his characters are stronger than the story – this is not critical of his story writing skills, but a tremendous compliment to his characterization. A good contrast is Michael Crichton’s Timeline. While the story was gripping and a page-turner (for the latter half, anyways), the characters were treated indifferently. On the other hand, within 5 pages of starting Ender’s Shadow, I was already hooked on the story of Bean and Poke and the other orphans; I was curious about what was going to happen in Battle School, but mainly I was interested in Poke, Bean, Achilles and the other orphans for their own sake, not how they’d fit into the plot.

The only complaint I have about Orson Scott Card has to do with certain of his story elements. In Ender’s Shadow, for example, we have to believe that Rotterdam Society is so poor that it will allow roving gangs of children to battle and starve to death in the streets. While this premise is not totally impossible, it is rather odd that a seemingly well-to-do city like Rotterdam would just allow children to die off. Card presents a lot of background information that supports exactly why this is, and presents the story so masterfully that it’s not a huge issue, but I found that while reading the book and for a while afterward, I’d come back to it – “Why on earth were they letting all those kids just die in the streets?” Similar elements seem present in many of his novels – he’s such a good storyteller that they work, but afterwards they leave me with lingering questions. As Stephen King talked about at length in Danse Macabre, sometimes the suspension of belief works, and sometime it comes crashing down.

The complaint is minor, however – the book is a page-turner, difficult to put down until the end. And while it’s portrayed as a stand-alone work, it really is better if you’ve read Ender’s Game first. The striking differences due to the viewpoint of Ender and Bean adds a whole new level of interest to the story.

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