Saturday, July 09, 2011

Book Review: The Lost Gate by Orson Scott Card

I do a lot of reading--so I've decided, inspired by my friend Laura, again, to begin posting, on occasion, reviews of what I read. I'll do fiction, knitting books, other publications--whatever's on my bedside table. Let me know what you think!

Review: The Lost Gate by Orson Scott Card (2010)
384 pages. (This review is of the hardback book club edition.)

Nutshell: 45% American Gods + 45% Percy Jackson series + 10% Twilight
AKA: Ancient gods are the new vampires.

Orson Scott Card is the author of arguably the most popular YA novel for boys of all time: Ender's Game. This is not to say that Ender's Game isn't a great book for both genders, but its male protagonist, futuristic-videogame-combat setting and slight seasoning of ethical dilemma seems to especially resonate with males of a certain age.

In The Lost Gate, Card reaches, stretches, and fails to capture the EG magic, creating a novel with an interesting, if unoriginal, premise--that the "Old Gods" of mythology still exist in our world (paging Mr. Card: have you heard of Neil Gaiman or Rick Riordan?)--and a protagonist, Danny North, who swings wildly from believable teen to laughably this-is-how-adults-think-teenagers-talk-think-and-feel. There's a secondary/companion story that hews closer to European-influenced fantasy: medieval-ish setting, castles, intrigue, secret identities.

I have my own personal beefs with (and love of) Card's books, having read the Ender series and (almost all of) the Alvin Maker series.

Let's start with the admiration: Card unabashedly loves America: American folk beliefs, accents, dialects, and geography. He's able to describe magical abilities on a near-molecular level, helping the reader understand and almost almost believe that the abilities could be real. He knows how to pace an action scene. He writes dialogue, particularly dialogue in dialect, without sounding clunky or too stereotypical, and has a naturalistic way of sliding in the vocabulary of the world of the book, making it seem acquired rather than alien.

That said, Card's style also often leaves me cold. He forces his personal belief system into his novels, and as soon as he does, they lose their magic and become clunky allegory. (That's why I stopped reading the Alvin Maker series.) He doesn't write female characters well; they come in three flavors: subservient/flavorless, scheming, and Auntie Mame.

So, then: The Lost Gate.

Synopsis: Danny North, pre-teen and seemingly-powerless member of a powerful family living on a hidden compound in western Virginia, discovers he's powerful, after all, and explores the dangers and joys of his newfound abilities. Meanwhile, on another world, a nameless, memory-less, ALSO seemingly-powerless character known as Wad is involved in his own mysterious journey of self-knowledge.

He tried to understand what it meant to “serve” stone or water, wind or the electricity of lightning in the air. But the stones bruised his fingers and moved for him only if he threw them; the wind only blew his hair into a tangled mop, and storms and ponds left him wet, cold, and powerless. Far from being precocious, with magic he was slow. Worse than slow. He was inert, making no visible progress at all.
Yet, except for the loneliness, he didn’t hate his life. His long rovings in the woods were a pleasure to him. Since neither tree nor animal was drawn to him, he simply ran, becoming swift and tireless, mile after mile. (15)

Nice descriptions of magical abilities, and creation of a believable system of magic. Card is able to construct the system without the “and now you’re getting the anthropological background of how magic works in this reality” section so prevalent in fantasy novels, usually bringing the narrative to a screeching halt. The tone shifted believably between Wad’s and Danny’s worlds.

Some meaningless episodic stuff happened in the middle that then got dropped in favor of the overall arc. Danny discovers a murdered family! (What?) Danny wants to go to public high school! (In a cafeteria scene that reminded me so much of Twilight that I wanted to scream, he inexplicably heals a bunch of people and, basically, no one bats an eye.)
Additionally, the whole “gods still walk among us” trope seems a mite played out, especially when (as I mentioned above) Gaiman did it so well for adult readers, and Riordan continues to for middle readers. Perhaps Card intends this series (it’s clearly not done yet) to fit in the middle ground for high school readers? The scatological humor and sexual situations point this direction... (Which brings me to:)

One boo to stereotypical adult characters. Who here has ACTUALLY had a sadistic gym teacher? A “climb that rope, kid, because I don’t like you” gym teacher? I didn’t think so.
Two boos to gratuitous and creepy sexual content. One adult female character could have just as easily been portrayed as the crazy she was without having her make inappropriate overtures to Danny.
Three big boos to semi-sadistic violence without plot or character purpose. (Which is, I guess, what gods do. But still!)

Those who liked but have grown out of the Percy Jackson and the Olympians series. (I’d recommend The Lost Hero, also by Rick Riordan, over this one, though.)

There were enough good things in The Lost Gate to make me open to reading a sequel, although the female characters make me feel all squirmy inside. But I’ll check any subsequent books out from the library; not buy-worthy.

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