Orson Scott Card is one of the best-known names in modern science fiction literature. This is in no small part due to the award-winning "Ender's Game" and its many sequels, though credit also belongs to his lesser-known series and sagas, such as "The Tales of Alvin Maker." Within the last year Card has created two new series, indeed two entirely new universes. The first world, "Mithermages," was launched with the publication of "The Lost Gate." The second, "Serpent World," is introduced in the novel "Pathfinder."
The boy Rigg is the titular "Pathfinder" of the novel, for he is able to see the paths of humans and animals, not by markings in the ground but by trails left by the soul suspended, as it were, in air. The only person whose path is invisible to him is the man he calls "Father," who raised him in the wilderness around the village of Fall Ford. Father taught him not only the skills of tracking and hunting, but also skills more suited for the city, such as the art of rhetoric. When Father is struck down by a tree during a hunt, Rigg is forced to return to the village, and ultimately make his way to his real family in Aressa Sessamo, the capital city of the wallfold.
As an author, Card's craft might be better classified as technical rather than artistic. This novel is like a machine, not as though it merely grinds away, nor as though it conveys a sense of inevitability. Rather, as the broader pattern gradually comes into focus, we realize that every detail is like a cog perfectly fitted to each other and to its place in the narrative.
This is particularly evident in three instances. First, each of the main characters is revealed to have particular gifts, which complement Rigg's path-finding skill and enable them to cooperate in the grand venture, especially near the end of the novel. Second, two of these gifts working in concert actually enable time travel, and while Card is unafraid to leap headlong into paradox, he is judicious with his use of this ability and always ensures there is an underlying unity throughout the novel. Third, some of the interactions between Rigg and city-dwellers (especially the banker of O, and to a lesser extent the royal family of Aressa Sessamo) are brilliant examples of Card's native talent for depicting political strategy in conversation.
The atmosphere of the story is largely one of fantasy. However, to the beginning of each chapter is conjoined brief passages that bear little resemblance to the main narrative, and much more closely resemble classic science fiction. The human race came close to extinction when the moon was struck by a comet. The surviving remnant built two space ships to a nearby habitable planet: the one attempting a jump through hyperspace, the other cruising at a more reasonable ten-percent of light speed.
Card utilizes his standard rotating wheel of perspectives, though in this case he mainly limits himself to two: the pathfinder Rigg, surrounded by allies on his odyssey to Aressa Sessamo, and the pilot Ram, surrounded by robotic "expendables" on the voyage to a planet called Garden. It is initially unclear how the two narratives intersect, until the novel nears its end. The final resolution, however, is both complicated and compelling, and promises to make for an exceptional series. I never cease to be impressed with Card's literary craft, and "Pathfinder" is no exception.
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