Saturday, April 30, 2011

Orson Scott Card: The Lost Gate

I'm not sure there's a more fitting conclusion to this blog's month-long celebration of Orson Scott Card than a review of his latest work, "The Lost Gate." It is more than a spectacular stand-alone story in his already impressive bibliography. It introduces the new world of Westil and Mittlegard, and launches the new "Mithermages" series. It is a story that has languished in Card's private thoughts (what Hollywood execs might call 'development hell') since 1977, the year that Card's short story "Ender's Game" was first published in the Analog Science Fact and Fiction magazine. The world of Mithermages may be the most fully realized world Card has yet crafted, and for that reason I highly recommend "The Lost Gate."

The novel begins in a small compound in Virginia, where the young god Danny has begun to wonder if he's really a god at all.  Danny is a North, one of the many families that came to Earth long ago from the land of Westil and became the basis for all the legends and myths of ancient gods. But the 'Great Gate' that connected them to Westil was severed, and the blood of the families has diminished in power. Danny has no skill with animals or elements. He doesn't even have a 'clant' or 'outself' that is the basis for other Westilians' power. Danny begins to fear he may be a drekka, a magic-less child, as worthless as the human drowthers who lack any awareness of magic at all.

Danny soon realizes, however, that his lack of aptitude in ordinary magery was actually a sign of far greater power than he anticipated. Danny is not a drekka, but a gatemage, master of space-time itself. This discovery puts him in grave danger, for the families have a pact to kill any new gatemages that are born. The last known gatemage was the one trapped the families of Westil on Mittlegard, by cutting off the Great Gate itself. Danny is forced to flee, and must learn to control his powers by trial and error among the drowthers of modern America.

The novel also presents a second storyline, taking place in the fairly medieval society of Westil and sharing many elements of a medieval-esque fairy tale. This story follows the unheroically-named Wad, an apparent amnesiac who is 'born' out of a tree and ultimately stumbles into the palace kitchen. He soon finds himself involved in an engaging cloak-and-dagger game of palace intrigue and romance. Like the secondary segments from "Pathfinder," this storyline is both well integrated into the primary plot and distinct enough to be almost an entirely different genre.

Fantasy novels succeed and fail on a single criteria: world-building. Plot and characters are necessary, but these do not define a work, nor are they the primary basis for judgment. The landmark "Lord of the Rings" trilogy is defined neither by its fairly straightforward dual "Hero's Journey" narratives, nor by its cast of characters, however fascinating and well drawn. Rather, the trilogy is defined by the mere fact of Middle Earth itself. We are overwhelmed by the immensity of a convincing and entirely original alternate reality.

In the fantasy genre, good novels build settings, while great novels build worlds. This is not restricted to solely physical environments. Fantasy novels are by definition fantastic: they involve elements that defy ordinary experience. But without order, worlds and stories devolve into chaos. Thus, even as they break rules, such stories must simultaneous build new rules to maintain the parameters of story. The "Harry Potter" series did this admirably, for much of the early content in the series defined the limitations of the Harry's magical abilities. Without such limits, the series would have collapsed under its own weight, for any narrative would be determined by the ad hoc caprice of the author. This is the second task of world-building: construct a framework within which the fantastical becomes ordered.

In the "Afterword," Card relates how this novel and the series were first developed as maps, maps with shifting borders, with changing cultural and political elements and a gradually crystallizing history. Around the same time, he was developing a system of magic "in which you gain 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." For readers of his Tales of Alvin Maker series, this will sound suspiciously familiar. Indeed, Card admits, he used this same system for that series of novels: the historical fantasy of an alternate America featuring 'knacks' and elemental affinities ruthlessly plundered and plagiarized his own burgeoning masterwork.

Yet all this work, over 20 years of world-building, certainly produced results. "The Lost Gate" is one of the most promising series I've encountered. Card's other recent novel "Pathfinder," has pretty spectacular potential on its own. Yet this novel and this "Mithermages" series promises even more.

The plot is a fairly straightforward 'origin story,' comparable to the first installment in a superhero franchise. We walk beside Danny North as he learns of his powers, his identity, and his ultimate destiny. Some of the characters felt off-putting; some of the scenes were unnecessary. He finds himself in a new and loving family, and there is a promising romantic angle that might be developed in future books.  But in the end, these elements are in the supporting role. They are more than adequate, but less than brilliant. The real star of the novel is the world itself, and the origin story points to even more impressive adventures that lie ahead.

This novel is highly recommended! To purchase, check out
The Lost Gate (Mither Mages)Contemporary Fantasy Books)

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