The Daily Monocle

Critical book reviews from a literary skeptic.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Pathfinder by Orson Scott Card

Posted by J. P. Wickwire

Rigg can see the paths of the people who have come before him. Like colored blurs of light, they hover above the ground, guiding and refining his hunting instincts. Under the tutelage of his father, Rigg becomes a wise and careful hunter. But after a freak accident, Rigg is suddenly thrust into the company of thieves, royalty, and unexpected friends. Now he's up against all odds to claim his rightful place as future king in a society that all but wants the royal family dead.

Simultaneously (in another place and time) a spaceship filled with the last remnants of humanity is attempting to cross the galaxy in an effort to find a hospitable planet. With a captain who seems uncertain under pressure, and a team full of "expendables" at his aid, the voyage seems doomed from the start... or does it?

With his usual flair for the intellectual, and startling ability to combine two seemingly-unrelated stories, Orson Scott Card has once again presented science-fiction fans around the world with a story worthy of the top of their to-be-read piles.

Pathfinder is as intelligent as it is fantastic. Card successfully writes the "quest" story without becoming too cliche. Rigg's ability to see these paths is deceptively simple, but allows ample room for exploration. Likewise, the concept of a colony ship heading towards an Earth-like planet with the last remnants of humanity has potential while still being a "root" concept of sorts. On their own, neither of these concepts could've carried the book, but when combined they present an intricate and thought-provoking read.

In addition to this, Card handles the paradoxes of time travel with dexterity. (In fact the only book that I've seen hand time travel comparably well is Audrey Niffenegger's The Time Traveler's Wife, a book whose plot I didn't care for.) Card allows time travel to react and fold back into itself without it taking over the story, and without alienating casual science-fiction fans. That being said, if you come into Pathfinder looking for a hard science-fiction offering, you'll come away disappointed. Pathfinder is borderline fantasy, and will not satisfy fans of hardcore, or technological sci-fi.

Pathfinder hosts a plethora of complicated characters, each with their own distinct personality. And while each character was complete and well-developed, I couldn't emotionally attach myself to any one person. Card's strength is definitely in his subtle storytelling skills and character-driven plots. Pathfinder is definitely more plot-driven. This may be due to the fact that it's the first book in a trilogy, or it could simply be a new approach to writing (as I felt much the same way about Empire). Thankfully, the story itself is strong enough to keep readers glued to the page.

Card's writing is intelligent without becoming academic; straightforward without being juvenile. And although Pathfinder is being marketed as a YA novel, it doesn't bear the brand of condescension that most YA novels carry. And yes, it has that distinct Card flavor, with many circumstances of characters "thinking on the page". This trait of over-explanation does get in the way sometimes, but never actually hinders the story.

In many ways, Pathfinder is Ender's Game's older, wiser and more fanciful cousin. Each features a young protagonist with extraordinary gifts; each one is thrust into unusual and frightening circumstances. But whereas Ender seems to suffer under the pressures of his given task, Rigg flourishes. And while I'm sure the author might get a little tired of readers constantly referring back to Ender as the epitome of his writing, I'm presenting the comparison as a way of showing how much Card has grown as a writer. Pathfinder is truly a story for all ages, accessible to all audiences, and is just the sort of "YA" novel that should set the standard for teen literature. I can't wait to read the sequel.

As an aside, I met Orson Scott Card at a local book signing where (quite obviously) he signed my books. It was wonderful getting to hear about the characters and the story straight from the author, and I look forward to reading more of his books in the future.

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