I’ve been a fan of Orson Scott Card’s writing since I ran across Ender’s Game (the short story) in the August 1977 Analog. I was just the right age for one of the best short stories of the last century, and I moved on to Card’s astounding Planet Called Treason, Songmaster, etc. While Card has made some pretty substantial missteps (Magic Street, Invasive Procedures), much of his work is excellent.
At the same time, I skipped his recent Empire series entirely, when a reader more politically conservative than me told me they were too conservative for his tastes. And of course it’s now difficult to think about Card these days without considering his very conservative (and to me offensive) political views. All that taken together, I picked up The Lost Gate partly out of nostalgia, and partly in the hope that a fantasy book would steer clear of politics. That’s a faint hope, of course. No book is ever completely divorced from politics. ‘Politics’ is just a convenient term for the issues that surround us all daily. A book that didn’t deal with them would be pretty dull. So, while reading The Lost Gate, awareness of Card’s politics kept creeping into the background. The good news is that the politics is bearable. The cast of characters is reminiscent of a certain set of 80s SFF – clever boy, doting girl, no gays in sight – outdated and sexist, but not worse than many others. Most of the actual policy elements are of the unobjectionable peace and harmony type. Happily, then, Card is still capable of writing books that are more story than screed.
The writing in The Lost Gate, unfortunately, is not up to Card’s standard. It’s largely good, but feels rushed (which an afterword indicates is true). The narrator, for example, has inconsistent knowledge of the world – he knows little about money, but all about checks. Even a young adult audience will disdain some of the adolescent humor.
Most troubling is the characterization. I give authors of young adult books some leeway, but here, a book focused on adolescents has distinctly pre-teen character development. When Danny meets some questionable older boys, he immediately tells them all about himself. It comes across not as naivete, but non-credible writing. A key older character is similarly flimsy.
The magic system, which Card says he has been working on for decades, is surprisingly thin. The idea and setup are good, but a lot of the details are sketchy at best. There are Gatefathers, Finders, Keyfriends, Lockfriends,… We don’t learn much more about them than their names. This was an opportunity to do something quite interesting, sadly squandered.
The ending of the book seems to reflect either time pressure or loss of interest – where most series would just be working into the discovery phase – how does all this work?, Card leaps forward to a manufactured crisis. He ends on a good note, but so much opportunity is passed over that it’s dissatisfying.
With all that, I still plan to read the next book. Why? Because I found that the politics didn’t intrude in the way that I feared, because the world and characters are intriguing enough, and because I believe Card has the skill to pull this off in the end. If you don’t buy Card’s books because of his politics, then as far as I know, they haven’t changed. If I applied that filter, I’d have very few books to choose from. If you’ve been avoiding Card because you don’t want to read about his politics, this book is pretty safe. And if you don’t care about any of that, but just want a decent young adult fantasy, go to it. This is not a book that will remind you of Card’s startling early skill, but it’s fun, quick, and easy.