I suppose it’s not surprising that, after some time, authors settle on or default to a particular kind of character (some, like K.J. Parker, only ever use one). If it’s not broken, why fix it? In Card’s case, the default appears to be a gifted, highly responsible young adult who is reluctant to lead, but recognized by everyone as a leader. It’s Ender and Bean from Ender’s Game, Danny from the Mither Mages, and now Rigg in the Pathfinder series. They’re all essentially the same person, and betray Card’s fondness for natural leaders and natural followers; they’re not always originally happy to lead or follow, but eventually they recognize their own nature, and accept it.
That said, I find it appealing that Card’s characters also by default examine their own actions, their motivations, and the repercussions of their decisions. That becomes especially useful in this series, which commits more and more to a trope I intensely dislike – time travel. While I’m still not a huge fan, Card has made an effort to generate some consistent rules, and to carefully analyze why and how things happen the way they do – both in terms of the mechanics of time travel and the characters’ own decisions. I’m not always sold on the resolution, but at least he makes a reasonably honest attempt to consider those decisions and to show his inhumanly gifted protagonists as relatively human (another Card trope). I suspect they’re a little too earnest and philosophical for some, but I enjoy it. Card also makes a point of making this a pseudo-ensemble cast – with a lead, but strong supporting characters. I just wish they didn’t defer to the natural leader quite so readily. There’s some resentment, but it’s surface level; we all know how it will play out.
The time travel remains both a stumbling block and a core mechanism of the series. Card explores how it can play out with a number of interesting scenarios, but he does occasionally miss the mark, obscuring the mechanism he’s trying to propose. Oddly, toward the end of this second book, he appears to lose interest in the major threat they’re all facing, and start to wrap things up, with everybody preparing to go off home. We know that can’t happen, because the bulk of the second book has been pointed directly at addressing the threat, and it remains unaddressed. It feels like an attempt to go from the small scale of the first book to the large scale of this one, and then draw back down, but it feels forced and unconvincing.
The physical setting of the book – a series of communities walled off by near-impassable barriers – feels like Card is revisiting his novel A Planet Called Treason via Jack Chalker’s Well World. Unfortunately, Treason, was much the better novel. Card approaches this reasonably effectively, but it’s not really a new concept. There are also some elements of authorial convenience in how things are set up. Passing through the barrier walls, for example, gives special powers, but it’s never really clear why it should be set up this way.
Overall, it’s an enjoyable read, and probably a good choice for teens, but somewhat slower going for those who’ve read more widely.