Saturday, February 5, 2011

An Orson Scott Card Review

As I had intended, and mentioned in a recent post, I read Orson Scott Card's newest novel The Lost Gate.

I had very high hopes. Not only was it the first time I was seeking one of OSC's "new" books in a store (my entire experience with his work being already-published paperbacks that sat on shelves right next to their follow-ups) but the way he described it in interviews.

Apparently, the ideas behind the magic and the world of The Lost Gate have been in Card's head since he was in college, growing, taking form, being tweaked; never quite ready for the full novel treatment. And then suddenly, decades later, it all came together and sprang fully formed and long-loved into existence.

This backstory he provided before the book even came out hit a soft spot for me. As a ridiculously amateurish wannabe writer, I have a couple ideas of my own, some rooted in fantasy, that I have already cherished for years. One in particular, conceived during a round table discussion in college, though completely unrelated to the class, has stuck with me ever since. It has received much thought and crappy first attempts and, honest-to-God, multiple notebooks full of notes (I've always wanted to say that without lying.)

Thus OSC's explanation of The Lost Gate's origins felt to me not only like a validation ('As long as you grow old enough, Captain Elias, your idea will become a book. Probably on its own. Without any true, painful, sweaty-type effort. So basically just eat healthier.') but a guarantee that here was a foolproof new piece of fiction that I was definitely going to love.

Unfortunately it sucked. Truly. There were some good pages every now and then, even a compelling chapter, but it was very hard to believe this was written by Card. His highly anticipated Magic, with its theories and rules and origins, was simple and unoriginal. The magic in the Maker series had similar principles but was infinitely more interesting.

Again, as is his 'specialty', his main character is a young boy (Danny North) dealing with adversity, on top of that whole adolescence thing. Only this time, it is entirely impossible to like the protagonist. In fact, not only is it difficult to connect with the character, pretty quickly you find yourself actively disliking him. He is petty, jealous, rude, and after a few hours alone becomes a thief and then a full-on burglar. Sure, he resorts to such things to clothe himself, but then he does it repeatedly in the vain hope of making his partner-thief a true friend, which he's never had before. Not just because his family wants to kill him for being uber-powerful, but because he is selfish, arrogant, devoid of manners, and entirely convinced that the world owes him something.

Plot and characters aside, the writing itself was weak. Dialogue, where I had once known Card to shine, was clunky and unnatural. The pacing and descriptions felt as if he had actually handed in to his editor pages from his college notebook. Perhaps Card was short on money, and took the old idea that he had never really made work, and spit it out at last to fulfill a deadline. I obviously don't know, but its an awful feeling to suspect you're reading a cop-out, like when I eagerly went to the TV Tuesday night at 8pm to see the latest Buffy and slowly discovered it was a filler episode that no one really cared about.

Now don't misunderstand me. Yes, I hated the book so much I returned it (though, to be fair, that was in part due to my extreme poverty) but I love Orson Scott Card, hence my disappointment and confusion. I devoured the Ender series, and the Bean series as well, loving them even when they veered away from sci/fi adventure into multi-species/timeywimey philosophy. The Alvin Makers were astoundingly good, and I have a google alert email me anytime someone mentions the final, as-yet-unwritten book. I even read the Homecoming Saga, and while I didn't love them that was more due to the density of retelling the Books of Mormon than it had to do with his writing, which has, for years, been superb, incisive, and natural.

In fact, The Lost Gate was so poor that I needed to read OSC immediately after and get the bad taste out of my head. I was about to reread an Ender when I realized I had a standalone OSC that I had never gotten around to. Songmaster. I had found it online in one of those unfortunately-not-rare amazon weaknesses. It was unlike anything Card had written in the sense that it had an issue, and character(s), who were homosexual. Naturally there doesn't exist a sci/fi/fantasy book dealing with homos written by a Mormon that I won't eventually find, and while I expected that, like most remotely gay stories with or without a religious perspective, it would end tragically (except for Maurice, thanks E.M. Forster) it seemed like the perfect time to read it.

And it was fantastic. The best Card novel I have ever read. It was modern and ancient, exciting and philosophical, and beautiful throughout. There was a type of magic, but it was more human than mystical, a power of music and song described in a way to make you utterly believe. The requisite young boy character was raw but changing, with joy and pain and regret and hope. A genuine person striving for perfection.

Often it read as a historical narrative, and there are few things I love more than historical fantasy fiction (fictional historical fantasy?) It was elegant, detailed, fast-paced, beautiful, and yes, sometimes tragic. It eliminated any bad Lost Gate-related feelings within a few pages. I highly recommend it.

Wanting to recreate the emotions that Songmaster brought out in me, I searched for similar books (as I often do when I finish one I love.) Specifically fantastical historical fiction. However, because of that whole poverty thing, I stuck to what was hiding in piles on my bookshelf.

Thus I took myself back to C.S. Lewis' incredible Till We Have Faces.

Not enough.

I dug out my stash of Mary Renault novels, perhaps my favorite historical fiction writer of all time, except, of course, Patrick O'Brian. I reread Fire from Heaven, and was consumed with Alexander & Hephaestion.

Not enough.

I had to continue, and reread The Persian Boy, despite having worn down pages going through it so often. Suddenly I couldn't remember how intensely I envied and pitied and desired Hephaestion, it was only Bagoas' love that mattered.

Still not enough, but it's a comforting sort of insatiability. If anyone has similar recommendations, I would love to hear about them.

The important part? I hardly remember the details, and certainly not the sensations, of The Lost Gate. And that is a very fortunate thing.

Note: Naturally I bear no ill-will to Mr. Card, and hold him in high esteem, despite this stumble. Regardless, life and health have nothing to do with literary criticism. So I'd just like to say that while he is recovering from the stroke he had on New Year's Day, I wish him and his family all the very best luck, and a speedy, complete recovery. God bless.

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