Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Review - The Lost Gate by Orson Scott Card

Short review: Danny is born into a magical family but he has no magic. Well, actually, he has a kind of magic everyone wants to kill him for. Things get bumpy after that.

Danny is a dud
Until he finds magic powers
Which everyone wants

Disclosure: I received this book as part of the LibraryThing Early Reviewers program. Some people think this may bias a reviewer so I am making sure to put this information up front. I don't think it biases my reviews, but I'll let others be the judge of that.

Full review: Orson Scott Card has made a career out of crafting coming of age stories featuring gifted youthful prodigies from dysfunctional or nonexistent homes. It should come as no surprise to anyone that Danny North, the protagonist in The Lost Gate, is a gifted scion of a magically endowed family who is forced to flee his less than idyllic home in the Virginia hills when his unique and dangerous talents are uncovered. As one might expect, the novel seems somewhat derivative of Card's earlier works such as Ender's Game, The Worthing Saga (read review), Seventh Son, or even Treason (read review). However, this is a formula that Card has become quite adept at, perfecting the ability to churn out readable pages, and he throws in just enough new elements to make the story interesting.

The novel opens with Danny North living uncomfortably among his many relatives in the family "compound" outside Lexington, Virginia. The source of Danny's discomfort is that he is apparently the only member of his large, extended family that does not display any kind of magical talent, referred to by the pejorative "drekka", which makes him, in his family's eyes, no better than the non-magical "drowthers" that populate much of the world. It turns out that Danny's family is not merely a collection of wizards, they are the Norse gods in exile, or at least the descendants of the Norse gods. And, as we learn, there are rival families all across the world, each the source of myths and legends drawn from various cultures: the Greeks, the Persians, and so on. All of these beings are, we are told, descended from travelers from the distant world of "Westil", who came to Earth and guided the destiny of human nations according to their capricious whims. The idea that the "gods" of human mythology are in fact powerful alien beings from another world is reminiscent of Stargate: SG-1, an element that Card hangs a lampshade upon by having a character make an explicit Stargate reference.

But the gods are in decline. It seems that over a thousand years ago Loki, the capricious master of Gate magic, closed all the magical gates in the world, including the critical 'Great Gate" to Westil, whereupon he vanished. It turns out that going through the "Great Gate" to Westil provides the boost to power that differentiates godlike power from the more trivial albeit real power displayed by Danny's relatives. Loki's betrayal precipitated a slow decline in the power of the various families of "gods", and sparked bitter wars between them, mostly directed at the North clan, who the other families blamed for Loki's actions. In the end, the families agreed to a truce, but the price was the eradication of any new "Gatemages" so as to prevent any one family from being able to recreate the Great Gate and gain an unassailable advantage over the others.

Danny, the son of the two most powerful North family members, turns out not to be a "drekka", but rather (and more or less predictably) a "Gatemage", which, it turns out, the family was secretly hoping for. This, of course, immediately puts Danny's life in danger, as the family is obligated to kill any Gatemage they find. But it turns out that most of those with power in the family don't want to kill Danny (unless they are found out, in which case they'd kill him without a second thought), but rather hope that he will live long enough to make a Great Gate so they can go through it and regain their lost glory. The mercenary nature of his family's interest in him offends Danny, and before he flees, he asserts that he will never work with them. And so he heads out on the road to try to hide from every magical family in the world (most notably, the rich and powerful Greeks) and figure out how to use his power.

The book flows well, but the rest of Danny's storyline seems oddly empty once it gets going. Danny, being a Gatemage, is good with languages, quick to learn stuff, and a natural born trickster. Card draws upon the myths of Hermes, Mercury, and Loki to establish these traits, asserting that as messenger gods they were all Gatemages (and implying that all messenger gods were Gatemages), and thus the attributes they share are the attributes of Gatemagery. But since Hermes and Mercury are essentially the same mythical character, this seems like an awfully slender thread to build upon, especially since the messenger gods from many other traditions are so disparate in their attributes. But this is Card's fictional reality, so he gets to set that precedent. The problem is that Danny uses that precedent to try to figure out how to use his powers, and it just isn't that convincing as a result. The other problem with Danny's journey is that, as a Gatemage who can always escape from trouble by gating himself away, there is limited tension in any situation Danny finds himself in. But that doesn't really matter, because with the exception of a handful of rent-a-cops, pretty much everyone Danny runs into wants to help him out. Despite the fact that we are told that danger lurks around every corner to ensnare the young Danny, every person he meets up with who says they want to help him actually does want to help him (although some only want to help him insofar as it helps them as well). Even the one character who could have proved an interesting nemesis for Danny turns out to be little more than a fawning fan of his, hoping he will make her life meaningful. No one ever tries to trick Danny and trap him or betray him, which makes his story more or less predictable.

And Danny himself is fairly standard as a Card hero. Like Alvin Maker, Danny loves to run. Like Card himself, Danny likes singing and has an affinity for thespianism. Also like Card, Danny eschews athletic competition, which is odd because Danny is also an excellent athlete. Like Ender Wiggin, Danny is precociously self-aware in a way that almost no teenager is. Danny, most importantly, struggles with the question of how to avoid becoming corrupted by what seems to be almost limitless power. Though he stumbles into petty thievery, Danny is always haunted by the spectre of the possibility that he, or those that he enables to become supernaturally powerful via his gift, might abuse their abilities and become tyrannical. The tendency toward power corrupting is a theme that runs through most of Card's works, and it seems as though it will develop into a major theme of this series as well.

Interwoven with Danny's story is the story of the man in the tree, later known as Wad, which takes place on Westil. Wad is a mystery, even to himself (although given the context of the story, it is likely that an astute reader will figure out who Wad truly is long before the book reveals his actual identity). Unlike Danny, Wad finds himself often in actual danger, despite his very real magical power because he is confronted with other personages of power and eventually has interests to protect. Also unlike Danny, Wad finds himself dealing with people who say one thing, but do another. Wad, it seems, must deal with the reality of betrayal that Danny only zealously guards against but never has to confront. Wad's story, set in a pseudo-Viking world, plays out like an epic Norse tragedy in the vein of the Volsung Saga, complete with betrayal, death, and anger.

Eventually Danny's story intersects with Wad's story, which makes Danny's story much more interesting. It also serves as the climax of the book, and resolves some questions, but like all good opening books of a series the resolution raises as many new questions as it answers. In the end, the reader is left wondering what will happen next as the story only seems to have gotten truly started when the book ends. This is, perhaps, inevitable in a book intended as the start of a series, but in The Lost Gate the end seems to come quite abruptly, and with altogether too many balls still up in the air. Except for the singular central plot point that is tied up, everything else remains decidedly unsettled, so the book doesn't really end so much as it offers a promise of more story to come.

Overall, The Lost Gate is a reasonably good fantasy book with some interesting ideas. However, the book is held back by a fairly bland and predictable main plot. To a certain extent, it seems like Card is just recycling characters and ideas that have shown up in his earlier works. One expects an author to have recurring themes in his works, but Danny North's character and story simply seem too much like the character and story of Alvin Maker, or Ender Wiggin, or Jason Worthing, or Lanik Mueller, or Bean, or a number of other characters from Card's oeuvre. It seems at times that Card merely took all of his previous plot and character ideas, threw them into a big bag, shook them up, and pulled them out to paste together into a new book. From a certain viewpoint, this would be a better book for someone who had not read a lot of Card's work previously. That said, even recycled Card plots and characters are pretty good, and Card's prose is well-written as always, so although Danny's story thus far seems kind of bland, Wad's story gives definite hope that it will move in a new direction as the series progresses. On that basis, this book gets a cautious recommendation.

Subsequent book in the series: The Gate Thief

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