Shadow Puppets, by Orson Scott Card

shadow-puppets-by-orson-scott-card coverGenre: Science Fiction
Publisher: Tom Doherty Associates
Published: 2002
Reviewer Rating: one star
Book Review by Kate Savage

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About a year and a half ago, I attended a remarkable and moving event. A friend of mine, Naomi Lipton, had been suffering from infrequent and mysterious seizures for 6 months. One spring day she died in the parking lot of her doctor’s office right after passing a physical. Naomi was smart, funny, supportive, creative and vivacious. Her passion in life was story telling and she was active in a local story telling group. After her death, her friends and admirers came together in an intimate, candle light theater to celebrate her life by sharing their favorite stories. Two of the stories shared that night were by Orson Scott Card. As sad an event as this gathering was, it was life affirming and healing. The stories by Card added to that magic.

I have other good memories about Orson Scott Card. The first Card book I read was Ender’s Shadow. I had never read anything like it. I became attached to Bean and found the story was addictive. The second book I read was Enders Game and that blew me away as well. I was aware of the other books in the series but decided I would save them for some other time. Time passed and I was in the mood for another book by Card. Never being one to be a slave to reading books in order, I decided to read Shadow Puppets next. I was ready to really enjoy this one.

Shadow Puppets has several overlapping plot lines. The main story line involves teenagers Bean and Petra. They are child geniuses and are among a recently graduated class from an elite military school. They are on the run because Hegemon Peter Wiggins (their former commander and the theoretical leader of the world ) has the foolish notion he can use their archenemy, Achilles, for his own purposes. Achilles is evil incarnate and wants to rule the world. He wants to kill both Bean and Petra because they threaten his plans. Bean must live long enough to organize his Battle School comrades to stop Achilles’ plan. In the second plot line, Petra wants to marry Bean and have babies with him right away. Bean does not want to have children because he has been tampered with genetically. He is the ultimate genius but he suffers from uncontrolled growth and would be unlikely to see twenty. The third plot line involves the problems Peter and the others face in their attempts to win their various campaigns.

As the story unfolds, Peter Wiggins loses control and is forced to go on the run as well. His base of power is uncertain and Achilles’ is growing. The fear is that Achilles will betray Peter’s people and deliver them to the forces of expansionist China. Bean and Petra find out that the evil scientist involved in Bean’s sad babyhood claims to be able to detect Bean’s lethal gene. They just need to trust him to aid them in creating defect-free embryos. In the background various groups lead by the graduates of Battle School carry out their campaigns and Peter needs to fight his own battles.

The Analog reviewer anticipates ” … a true dynastic saga may be about to unfold.” Spock help us! Not that! This book has plot holes a fleet could fly through. I found this story overly contrived. It was an effort to pick it up and finish Shadow Puppets. For me, the cynical subtext is Card is famous and people will buy anything he writes no matter how poor the writing.

Unlike Ender’s Shadow or Ender’s Game, this book did not pull me in. At first I thought the start was just be slow and if I kept with it, I would be rewarded. I was not. There was no dramatic tension in the book. The characters were boring and one dimensional. Bean was described as a super genius but he was so stupid I could not feel attached to him. Quite the contrary, he was like a character in a bad horror movie you want to see killed so the movie ends quickly. The love story between Bean and Petra was anemic. It struck me as the typical immature and impulsive teenage romance that makes so many divorce lawyers rich. Petra was not the only character who was obsessed with having babies for the sake of having babies — it came up over and over again in this book. There was even an embarrassing and offensive scene with a homosexual man who decides to convert to a heterosexual lifestyle because “…the meaning of life: for a man to find a woman, for a woman to find a man, the creature most unlike you, and then to make babies…”. The idea that such a character would decide to make this switch based on dogma does not ring true. People of all persuasions make life changes not because they see “the light” but because they fall in love with a particular person and that changes everything for them.

The reason Petra is in such a rush to have a baby and Bean is so resistant is because of Bean’s genetic flaws. In the universe Bean lives in, space travel and colonization of other planets are everyday events. If Bean were to move to an environment where the gravity is less, his flaw would not be lethal and there would be no complication in fathering children. He would still be able to marshal ground forces on earth and the problems in carry out remote global military campaigns could make for some interesting plot twists. Petra would not need to be in such a rush and they would not need to trust the evil scientist. Much of the book would not be written and there would be no sequel needed.

I cannot recommend this book as a stand alone or a book that adds to the series. Read as a stand alone, the plot is weak and the character development is meager. We are told that the Bean and the other children are geniuses but other than one campaign by a minor character in India, their actions do not support this assertion. We are told Bean and Petra love each other but the love story is nonexistent. The plot twists and ending are obvious from the start, so there is no tension driving the book.

As part of a series, again the book falls short. Fans of the character Bean will not be happy to see his character ruined in this book. Anyone who read Ender’s Game will wonder why we should care that Ender’s sociopath brother Peter is successful. While Peter may marginally be better than Achilles, in Ender’s Game and Ender’s Shadow they were parallel characters. Peter was Ender’s nemesis and Achilles was Bean’s. To do such a fundamental reworking of a character without a clue as to how the character was transformed defies logic. If it is explained in another book, if so, where is the back story? If readers need to read each book of a series in order to make sense of others, maybe the series should be allowed to die out.

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