The Lost Gate ReviewFeb 23
Originally posted 02/18/2011 on cxPulp.com. Read and comment on this review here!
Reviewer: Craig Reade
Quick Rating: A mix of classic Card and modern Card
Danny North discovers his great power – and must survive long enough to learn to use it.
Author: Orson Scott Card
Publication Date: January 4th, 2011
Publisher: Tor Books
In this latest effort by Orson Scott Card we are introduced to a young man named Danny – a member of the magical “Great Families.” In this universe, the old gods of Earth were actually mages from the world of the Mithermages – Westil. While there was once a Great Gate that connected Westil to Mittlegard (Earth), these mages are now trapped on Earth. The Great Gate (along with every other gate) was swallowed up by the trickster God Loki, who was actually a powerful gatemage. Loki’s motivations are uncertain, but his actions lead all of the magical families throughout the world to decree that any gatemage should be put to death immediately. Danny, we discover, is one of these gatemages, and the discovery of his abilities forces him to flee into the modern world where he must learn to use his powers on his own while running for his life.
Card has kind of returned to his roots here – and that is a welcome thing. So many of his great stories have involved young protagonists. Whether is is the Ender Saga, the Tales of Alvin Maker, the Homecoming saga – or even one-offs like Wyrms or Songmaster, his best, most captivating protagonists are intelligent and capable young men (or women) who have responsibility beyond their years thrust upon them. I am not saying that I haven’t enjoyed other Card works, but for some reason when one of his stories is told through the eyes of an intelligent child, it is that much more endearing.
In The Lost Gate, Card has developed a very intricate magical system – as evidenced by the decades he has worked on this concept. There are mages of all varieties and power-levels, and as you might expect – political power in the magical world is often tied to the power and practicality of your magic. Through most of his life, Danny was considered the lowest of the low: a drekka – of a magic heritage, with no powers at all. Danny’s an intelligent boy who excels at school, but not much else. Unbeknownst to him, he starts showing signs common to all gatemages, including an affinity for languages and a mischievous “trickster” character. Some members of his family try to conceal this talent, in the hopes that he can live long enough to gain enough power to survive his certain death sentence and to lead their family to dominance against the rest of the world. A visit from a Greek inspection delegation forces Danny into the open – where he has to flee to the world of the drowthers. Drowthers, of course, are the normal humans of this world. Our stories of the mages take the form of myths. All of the ancient pantheons are actually families of gods who interacted with the world.
In his journey, he stumbles upon a group of exiled mages calling themselves Orphans. Outcast, they band together in an effort to protect themselves, and hopefully to discover a gatemage powerful enough to open a new Great Gate to take them back to Westil (their homeworld) and to survive the inevitable attack of the Gate Thief. It turns out Danny is far from the first gatemage to survive since Loki closed the gate, but each one who grew powerful enough to attempt the feat fell prey to the gate thief, who swallowed up most of their power and magical selves, leaving them a shell.
A side plot of this book follows another young man – he is eventually named Wad, and he quickly becomes a servant in a royal house on Westil. His story involves a bit of castle intrigue: he gets thrust in the middle of a political struggle between the supporters of the King and the Queen herself – a foreign noble from a family that recently defeated the King’s family in a war. Like Danny, he displays signs of being a gatemage himself, and his power takes a central role in the court intrigue.
The Lost Gate is a mixed bag. Ultimately Card is an extremely skilled writer, so the story is absolutely enjoyable not matter how you look at it. But comparing this book with some of the other great series starts, it kind of pales in comparison. Danny’s story lacked some of the punch it could have. Once he is thrust into the drowther world, you are told that he is going to be in danger and constantly on the run – but that never really materializes. The reader is reminded of that frequently – but the only time he is ever actively pursued is during the climax. In this confusing scene, he is attacked by his family, who are at the same time rejoicing in his power and asking him to return to restore their power in the world.
As his story progresses, Danny gathers his own little family – and it really felt like the time spent on these characters was wasted. For the most part, these characters are redundant and shallow, and the story could have accomplished what it did using Stone and Hermia alone, leaving a lot more time to really explore the danger Danny was supposed to be in.
Wad’s story, though secondary, was far more captivating. Each character in that story had a purpose – and none of the narrative seemed wasted on him. Though you guess early his true purpose in the story, watching him get to that point was interesting. Of course, his story join’s Danny’s before long, but that confluence was too abrupt and forced. His story abruptly shifts somewhat unresolved (or sloppily resolved), and his story assumes the same half-finished feel that Danny’s had during the entire narrative.
Card describes a bit of the process of creating this novel in an Afterword. He explains that the idea of the universe was first born way back in 1977. As the universe evolves, he collaborates with another writer named Jay A. Parry, with whom he developed the guts of the story that provides the framework for Wad’s tale in The Lost Gate. He further develops the mithermage universe in a novella called Stonefather – which ultimately leads us to The Lost Gate.
Card describes the process of writing The Lost Gate, and talks about how the moment Danny escaped the family compound early in the story, the book “hummed right along to the end.” Strangely enough, this is the exact moment where Danny’s story goes from interesting to phoned in. Card talks about how he struggled to finish the book on airplanes, during writing workshops, and during conventions all to meet a deadline. Sadly, this fact becomes obvious as you read the story.
The elements of this book that Card worked decades on are up to his usual standard. The universe he created is complex and compelling. Wad’s story – largely laid out decades before – hooks the reader in Card’s usual way. But Danny’s exile – the part of the book that is most contemporary – Card seems to spend more time working on a way to include a character named after a friend of his (Victoria Von Roth) than he does providing real depth to the characters he created. By his own admission in the afterword, he was more concerned with completing the book by a deadline, on the road and with distractions, rather than spending the time and effort to craft a complex and compelling story. In a strange way, this novel illustrates the differences between the Card of old and as he is today – it has been some time since I was truly satisfied with a Card novel, and his depiction in the afterword of The Lost Gate clearly explains why. Once upon a time, he was meticulous in his efforts to craft a story – today, he just bangs them out on airplanes to meet a deadline and cash a check. Card is an incredible talent, and even phoning it in he creates something readable and interesting, but I think he did a disservice to this universe he created so many decades ago by just slapping together such a large portion of this book. You can clearly see which parts of this story he worked decades on, and which parts he threw together at the end, and that juxtaposition combined with Card’s afterword really answered a lot of questions I had about his work in recent years.
This book is enjoyable. As I said before – though it is painfully obvious that Card didn’t spend the effort finishing this book that he could have, even his half-efforts produce something worth reading. This looks like it is going to be the start of a series, and I can say that I will probably pick up the second installment when it eventually comes out. Recommended.