Ender’s Game was a SF book so successful and critically acclaimed that it launched Orson Scott Card’s career for decades to come. In fact, it’s fair to say that the story of Ender Wiggins is one of the most popular SF novels the genre has ever produced, to the point of getting the full-budget Hollywood treatment in 2013 (grossing $125 million on a budget of around $110-115 million) with A-listers such as Harrison Ford and Ben Kingsley, but receiving mixed critical reviews.
Not one to miss a commercial opportunity, Card has returned the favor, producing a whopping 15 Ender-related books with more in the works apparently. I read Ender’s Game (1985, winner of the Hugo and Nebula Awards) at the perfect age for that book, in junior high school and overlapping with the character’s ages. In fact, it’s fair to say that the book launched my love of SF after having mostly read fantasy such as THE LORD OF THE RINGS, CHRONICLES OF NARNIA, CHRONICLES OF PRYDAIN, etc.
I quickly went on to Speaker for the Dead (1986, winner of the Hugo and Nebula Awards again) and was deeply moved by its examination of the ethics of Ender’s actions in the first book and subsequent attempts at redemption. However, I found the follow-up Xenocide (1991) a bit dialogue heavy and didn’t ready anything else by him for over two decades including the fourth Ender novel Children of the Mind (1996). In fact, I was quite surprised to discover the cottage industry Card has built around Ender during that time, when I finally re-read Ender’s Game and Speaker for the Dead 30 years later. I thought Ender’s Game held up well as a fast-paced but thoughtful military SF yarn, but Speaker for the Dead became fairly tedious with all its anguished moralizing. Maybe my reaction is more about how I have changed since my innocent days of youth.
In any case, I’m not so enamored of Ender’s Game that I feel obligated to read 15+ sequels and spin-offs, etc. However, having read a number of reviews, many readers claim that Ender’s Shadow (1999), essentially a re-telling of Ender’s Game from Bean’s perspective, was surprisingly good. Although it is part of a series known as THE SHADOW SAGA, following the stories of major characters from Ender’s Game such as Bean, Peter, Petra, Achilles, etc.
Ender’s Shadow gets much more into the political and military intrigue back on Earth after Ender prevails over the alien Buggers, and I have to admit I’m not that interested in that direction (and reviews I’ve read have been fairly negative too). Ender’s Game captured readers’ attention, especially YA readers, because the story was about a lonely 12-year old military genius who had to survive Battle School, prove his leadership skills against older kids and the manipulative generals in charge of him, and beat an implacable alien fleet with only his tactical ingenuity. It’s easy to get pulled into his story and so it makes sense to revisit it, but only if you have something new to add and not just rehash it.
So I was hesitant to try Ender’s Shadow but I was drawn into the story of tiny Bean trying to survive on the mean streets of children’s gangs in Rotterdam in in 2170. At the opening, Bean is supposedly just 4 years old and starving to death. Despite being almost too weak to put food to mouth, he manages to convince a small street gang led by female boss Poke to keep him alive by giving them critical survival tips to gain entry to food kitchens and stave off older bullies. Bean’s special skills and behind-the-scenes influence on the entire power balance of the street gangs brings him to the notice of Sister Carlotta, who runs one of the food shelters but also is a recruiter for the IF (International Federation) that is looking for promising candidates for Battle School.
Against all odds, tiny Bean excels enough to get picked for Battle School, where he intersects with the famous storyline of Ender Wiggins. It’s unlikely that readers will come to Ender’s Shadow without having first read Ender’s Game, so Card has to achieve the difficult goal of giving us a fresh look at the events of Ender Wiggin’s time at Battle School from Bean’s perspective, and I was pleasantly surprised to find that he pulled it off quite well.
Bean is a very different character from Ender. He is a child-genius that has grown up on the streets with only one goal — to survive at all costs by using his wits and tactical skills to manipulate stronger people around him, both children and adults, but remaining behind the scenes and avoiding the notice of powerful enemies. So while Ender is constantly under the spotlight and is forced to prove his leadership again and again, Bean stays in the shadows, carefully gathering data on the other commanders in battle school, the trainers, and the generals who think they are controlling events. He surreptitiously helps Ender when he can, but sometimes makes crucial mistakes that actual expose Ender to potentially fatal danger.
Eventually Bean’s tactical skills become apparent to the other children, but it is Ender’s leadership that captures their hearts and loyalty, not Bean. So there is the emotional dynamic of love/jealousy with which Bean observes how Ender can control those around him, and even when more credit for tactics in the battle simulations should be given to Bean, it is generally Ender who gets the accolades. At the same time, the intense and unrelenting pressure of Ender’s success in the games is also a burden that Bean can only observe from outside, unable to share the cross that Ender bears each day. As the games get more relentless as the generals accelerate the pace, knowing that the real battle with the Buggers at their home world is rapidly approaching, it is Bean who seems most aware of the real situation, and Ender who is withering under the pressure.
I was impressed with how exciting the story remained even when I knew in detail what was going to happen. Card managed to give the reader new angles that make us reexamine the same events with greater emotional depth and understanding of the greater context of the story. Card called it a “parallax” story, and it’s something that might have failed in lesser hands. I think after having written so many books about Ender over the years, Card has a deep knowledge of the characters, storyline, and universe, and also what appeals to fans.
The audiobook is an all-star production featuring Scott Brick, Stefan Rudnicki, and Gabrielle de Cuir. They provide a level of dramatic range to the characters that really enhances an already-compelling story. Ender’s Shadow is a great companion piece to Ender’s Game, so give it a try.