Paul Di Filippo reviews Orson Scott Card
Orson Scott Card is a science fiction author, right? Well, that’s certainly the instinctive, easy response, given the fame of his Ender books above all others in his oeuvre. But a quick scan of his impressive array of titles in the front of his newest novel, The Gate Thief, identifies a goodly number that are purest fantasy, from 1992’s Lost Boys onward. This volume to hand, however, falls squarely into neither camp: it reads, pleasingly, very much like a hybrid of the two realms Card works in—fittingly enough, given the book’s schema of two worlds interacting.
Here’s the lowdown, which we learn right from the outset: beings that are associated with famous deities and pantheons of yore inhabit our modern-day world. But not in a New Age, Neil Gaiman, power-of belief, American Gods way. There’s a scientific rationale for their existence, and their powers are a grab bag of Campbellian psionics. Nonetheless, a kind of High Fantasy affect does indeed intermittently overlay this logic, especially in the sections of the book that occur off-Earth. Call it science-fantasy then, and relax and enjoy.
The story begins in 2010’s The Lost Gate. Thirteen-year-old Danny North, abnormally unmagical, is the member of a backwoods clan of “mages,” each of whom exhibits a specialized type of mind-over-matter power. Immediately, we are at home in the vein of Henry Kuttner’s famous Hogben stories about similar hillbilly slans. But then comes a refinement of the scenario: these folks are not homegrown mutants, but exiles from a neighboring dimension, Westil, where their powers are just the norm. They have been castaways on Earth for millennia, functioning as our familiar earthly gods in the past, thanks to their wild talents impressing mere mortals. (And here savvy comics readers will flash a little bit on Bill Willingham’s Fables series.)
The reason that the mages cannot return to Westil is that the interdimensional Gate that brought them here is no more, having been dismantled yonks ago by a legendary mage named Loki. It will take a very special gatemage to restore the useful breach, and none have been born in all these centuries.
Well, that’s not strictly true. The various global branches of the exiles have a pact to kill any child that exhibits gate-making powers, for various complicated strategic reasons. They’d rather be lost on Earth then have their balance of power upset.
You might very well guess Danny’s role in all this: he’s the developmentally delayed and extra-powerful gatemaker everyone’s been waiting for. But to Card’s credit, he does not belabor the reveal, which comes before Chapter 2 is over, nor does he confer on Danny any hubris or pious sanctity. In fact, as you might surmise from the invocation of Loki, gatemages are traditionally pranksters and bad apples, and Danny is no exception, being selfish, vindictive and mischievous by turns.
The rest of The Lost Gate concerns Danny’s life on the run—he gets swept up in the machinations of Oliver Twist-style lowlifes—and the maturation of his sensibilities and powers. The latter development will remind readers of Steven Gould’s Jumper books, with some neat fresh twists. Chapters on Westil develop a parallel narrative that is slower to reach fruition, but which dovetails with Danny’s story at the climax. As for Danny’s education, it’s kind of an anti-Harry Potter scenario. Raised in a magical environment, he’s got to learn the virtues of living with the “drowthers” or muggles.
After a brief and useful recap, The Gate Thief picks up swiftly from the conclusion of its predecessor. Danny, age sixteen, has met and defeated the original Loki in Westil (after 1400 years of quiescence, Loki now prefers being called Wad). That slightly undercooked Westil thread now becomes crucial. Danny’s victory has allowed him to incorporate new and massive powers into himself, and to keep open a channel with his ancestral dimension. But still, naively, Danny thinks he can live a normal life as a high school student in Virginia with a new set of pals (all sketched in lively and colorfully bantering fashion). Danny’s long loneliness as a pariah within the North clan drives much of his behavior, including fumbling efforts at romance.
But the various Families sense what he’s done and come gunning—literally—for him. His new abilities—and Card comes up with some truly clever and surprising refinements of the teleportation trope, such as portable mini-gates anchored to arbitrary objects—allow Danny to defeat all antagonists and establish a new pax Danica, so to speak. But then stuff starts to go wrong. Danny builds a Gate he can’t control, and lurking in the background is a malign creature named Bel or Set, hailing from a third dimension neither Earth nor Westil. Set has plans to conquer all realms, but Danny’s a bit too ignorant to unravel them before it’s too late.
Card’s perennial themes are on display here, but in a manner that is neither grating nor negligible. The talented youth who is forced to assume powers he might not believe himself ready to handle. The Machiavellian deceits and abuses of adults against youngsters. The mistrustful negotiations between powerful peers. The tension between exploration and exploitation of new realms. Expiation and renunciation of power. These are all potent motifs which allow for high drama, and Card is adroit at providing same. But simultaneously, there’s a counterbalancing lightness to Danny’s adventures, reminiscent of a Heinlein YA book. (Danny even comments at one point that his life resembles a YA novel.) Card does not omit the wish-fulfillment, mythic excitement of an ugly duckling turned swan. Certainly, the large stakes of the battle return in the galvanizing climax—setup for a third volume, natch—but none of that makes the drowther world any less consequential or substantial.
With a little flavor of Roger Zelazny’s Amber books, and a taste of Lloyd Alexander’s The Chronicles of Prydain, Card has delivered a science-fantasy series that manages to anchor itself both in the quotidian and the marvelous, at once darkly ancient and brightly modern.
One thought on “Paul Di Filippo reviews Orson Scott Card”
I am glad to read this post. I followed OSC from Analog to HOT SLEEP and forward. Somewhere in that process I felt he lost the ability to hold my attention. I would re-read his older books with relish (my favorites being the first three Alvin Maker books and SONGMASTER)but I just couldn’t finish many of his newer books. I will have to try this out and see if the magic is back for me. Thanks, Paul.