Reader Aaron Gifford contributed this review of Shadow of the Hegemon, by the prolific Orson Scott Card. (What? An author with the "ability to make smart characters actually act and behave intelligently"? The sky is falling!) Given the movie plans in the works from Card, it's great to see the bookshelf expand with possible sequel material, too.
It's out, the new Orson Scott Card book, Shadow of the Hegemon. I don't want to give away any more of the plot than is already apparent in the summary above, so let me tell you about the book indirectly, about my own reactions, what I liked about it.
First of all, I must admit it. I'm a Card fan. I was introduced to his work like many other Slashdot readers as a teenager when I read Ender's Game. The intensity of that story and the believable brilliance of the main characters hooked me from the start. The sequels, Speaker for the Dead, Xenocide, and Children of the Mind continue Ender's story, but are substantially different in style and tone from the first. Card's more recent bold experiment, Ender's Shadow returns to the events in Ender's Game and retells them in parallel through the eyes of a different character, Bean. That book recaptures some of the essence and style of Ender's Game while making the story into something completely new and original.
Shadow of the Hegemon charts new territory as a sequel to Ender's Shadow telling the stories of the aftermath of the Formics War. This is not a parallel book like its predecessor. It takes place during those years mentioned only briefly in Ender's Game as Ender travels through space on the colony ship. Ender plays no part in this book.
The book definitely has action, and I love it! While Card often writes so much about the inner thought processes of his characters that sometimes his stories can slow down, there's enough action and adventure and a fast enough pace to make this book a really fun read. I might characterize it as a cross between the slower moving intellectual style in the later Ender series books and the fast paced intensity in Ender's Game. It's a blend that works.
Among the many things I enjoyed in this book is Card's excellent development of Bean's human emotional self. While Bean is intellectually brilliant, as the book opens, he seems to go through the motions of human emotional interaction without truly having felt the emotion. Card seems to have captured the shortcoming that children who suffer deprivation of human contact early in life sometimes exhibit, and included it in the character of Bean. As the story progresses, Bean slowly develops genuine emotional ties with other human beings and the emotional side of his character matures considerably.
Like any work of fiction, there must be a suspension of disbelief. The character Achilles, Bean's enemy from his earlier years growing up in Rotterdam and again at Battle School, returns as a highly connected villain worthy of any James Bond movie. In Ender's Shadow Bean exposes him as the psychopathic murderer he is. Achilles, also a genius, has escaped from an institute for the criminally insane to wreak havoc on the world in general, and on Bean and his personal enemies in particular, as he ensconces himself in positions of power. In several places, Achilles seems to have a nearly omniscient ability to monitor the actions and whereabouts of his personal enemies, stretching my suspension of disbelief a bit thin as I read.
I truly enjoyed Card's character work in this book. I appreciate his willingness to create characters with backgrounds from many different cultures and locations. Card conscientiously takes the time to study and learn enough about other cultures and peoples. As a result, his characters have a depth and background beyond those in many novels.
Card creates characters with religious beliefs that are real to those characters who hold them. Even those characters who are atheist or agnostic in their own beliefs hold tightly to those beliefs every bit as tenaciously and religiously as do those characters who espouse a particular recognizable. Card always seems to treat religion with the respect others often neglect. His characters in this book, in particular Sister Carlotta, Ender's mother, and several characters from India and Pakistan, through their words and interactions, show how their own profound religious beliefs make up their core and affect their choices.
Another Card talent exhibited in this book, if not as strongly as it did in Ender's Game, is Card's ability to make smart characters actually act and behave intelligently. So many authors resort to devices that seem to say, "This character is smart because I'm telling you so," without any supporting evidence other than the author's word, or perhaps on the word of the author's supporting characters who may say in agreement, "Yes, that character is smart."
Card does sometimes tell the reader that his characters are smart, but he always backs it up with intelligent decisions, thought processes, and actions that make it believable. He's not perfect, but he is definitely among the top talents.
I was delighted and amused whenever I noticed one of the characters speaking or thinking and idea that I recognized as one of Card's own opinions or ideas. If you have read much of Card's work and are familiar with his own opinions as often expressed his non fiction and on his various Web sites (you can see some examples Card's political commentary at www.ornery.com) you too will catch his characters presenting some of those same ideas.
With so many intellectually gifted characters playing on the stage, sometimes they begin to sound a bit like each other. It's almost unavoidable for any author who writes as prolifically as Card to keep each character unique, fresh, and new. Card is one of the best at avoiding this problem, but it does crop up here and there.
When you finish the story, read the Afterword. Card's inclusion of a few words of commentary about the story writing process, how the book came to be, and about the decisions he had to make as he wrote it is fascinating. If you like Card, you will like this book. If you like action and international power plays, you will like this book. If you appreciate good writing and character development, you will like this book.
If you haven't yet read Ender's Shadow, I suggest you read it before you read this book. Like most of Card's work, this book can stand on its own, but it works better as a sequel since the book expects you to be familiar with the several main characters and their backgrounds.
You can purchase this book at ThinkGeek.