Wednesday, 29 December 2010

Book Review | The Lost Gate by Orson Scott Card

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Danny North knew from early childhood that his family was different, and that he was different from them.  While his cousins were learning how to create the things that commoners called fairies, ghosts, golems, trolls, werewolves, and other such miracles that were the heritage of the North family, Danny worried that he would never show a talent, never form an outself.

He grew up in the rambling old house, filled with dozens of cousins, and aunts and uncles, all ruled by his father.  Their home was isolated in the mountains of western Virginia, far from town, far from schools, far from other people.

There are many secrets in the House, and many rules that Danny must follow.   There is a secret library  with only a few dozen books, and none of them in English — but Danny and his cousins are expected to become fluent in the language of the books.  While Danny’s cousins are free to create magic whenever they like, they must never do it where outsiders might see.

Unfortunately, there are some secrets kept from Danny  as well.  And that will lead to disaster for the North family.


Pitched as the first volume of a catch-all, YA-friendly fantasy series with designs on encompassing every one of the genre's go-to tropes, The Lost Gate sees multiple award-winner Orson Scott Card, an author renowned for beloved sci-fi classic Ender's Game and reviled for his controversial politics, with his sights set high. Too high, perhaps? I don't know... I'm in two minds.

Speaking of which!

A tale of two worlds, linked so long ago by Loki, a powerful gatemage with the ability to twist from the very fabric of space-time magical passages between places - between even planets - but estranged from one another for centuries, The Lost Gate has a pair of adolescents act as our narrative chaperones. In the first world, Westil, Wad is freed from a tall tree in which he has been trapped for untold ages, and soon finds himself a prized advisor at the court of the kingdom of Iceway, with powers beyond the ken of any men. The other world is our own - though the Families, leftover Gods descended from Westilians stranded after Loki fell and The Great Gate with him, know it as Mittlegard.

Danny North was part of a Family once. Now he's been cast out from the secret commune where he grew up, and all because he's shown signs of being a gatemate. With nowhere else to go, he hits the road; a runaway for all intents and purposes, hitching lifts from city to city and shoplifting from Walmart just to get by. As he comes to understand his powers, Danny finds amongst the Drowthers - non-magical folk - both friends and enemies, both teachers and those who will test him. Having long hoped to escape the North's hidden smallholding, you sense Danny might have been happy to leave it at that.  Except... he has a destiny. As a gatemage, he has a chance to re-open The Great Gate between worlds, ushering in an era of bountiful peace and sharing - or else one of war; a war of Gods.

But he has to try, doesn't he?

In a fascinating explanatory afterword, Card admits The Mither Mages has been three decades in the making, suffering various false starts under the care of multiple editors, publishers and agents. "I thought of it as my best world ever, and my best magic system. I wanted to tell only stories that were worthy of it." (p.380) And there is a certain grandiosity about the worldspinning begun in The Lost Gate, particularly in Westil - Wad's chapters are far more enrapturing in that regard than Danny's - and indeed the magic system, whereby one gains "power over a type of creature or an element or force of nature by serving its interest, helping it become whatever it most wants to become." (p.379) Both seem boundlessly ambitious; capable, as per Card's modus operandi, of embracing and explaining virtually any fantastic trope - running the gamut from mystical creatures to magical abilities - the author deems include.

Whether Westil and the sympathetic, Norse-tinged magic of the Families can be counted as Card's best, as he stresses, remains to be seen - The Lost Gate is very much the first volume of a series (take what you will from that) - but whichever way you cut the mustard, the charmless misadventures of Danny North are far from "worthy" of either, as per Card's terminology. The boy's a buffoon... an insufferable show-off, mooning authority figures left, right and centre and giving cheek in the erstwhile to everyone who dares do him a kindness. There's a certain wit to his lip, I'll grant, but even then there's too much saying and not enough said.

It's a shame, then, that The Lost Gate's narrative burden is largely at Danny's command; though there's far more to Wad's tale - in meaning, action and import - reduced to interludes between episodes of overbearing slapstick it hardly has the opportunity to flourish. Given which, the component parts of this decades-in-the-making novel oftentimes feel irreconcilable with one another. With maturity, poignancy and profundity one moment and lowest common denominator toilet humour the next, Card seems to want to have his cake and eat it.

Yet for all the frustration of grand designs undermined, I wonder if The Mither Mages might yet summit the peak before it, for from time to time there's a glimmer of something extraordinary shining through the self-consciously snappy banter. And the fart jokes. And the wildly inappropriate sexual inferences. The two worlds - wherever might the twain meet? - and the welcome-all-comers magic system give every indication of being, if not on this occasion then perhaps come volume two, the great things Card insists they are. And surely by then Danny'll have grown up a bit; certainly he grates less towards the end of The Lost Gate than at the outset. I've got my fingers crossed.

But fool me once...


The Lost Gate
by Orson Scott Card

US Publication: January 2011, Tor (Forge)

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