Title: The Lost GateAuthor: Orson Scott Card
Release Date: January 2011
Reviewed by: Daniel Burton
Buy from: Amazon.co.uk, Amazon.com
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.Danny is an almost orphaned child raised in a family of magical adepts, while he himself lacks the skills and talents that set his family apart from humanity. Instead, he focuses on his academic studies, absorbing history, languages, and learning at a voracious rate. One day, almost by accident, that all changes when he realizes he unexpectedly inherits magical powers long thought to be lost from the world. This discovery is a death sentence in his family, and he does the only logical thing—he runs, narrowly escaping certain death.
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.
On his journey, he explores his new and strange magical powers, as well as the non-magical world he has been hidden from his whole life. He is a mage, descendent of the gods and goddesses man worshiped in ancient times, but he travels among normal people, finding his way among the beggars and thieves in the underworld of Washington, D.C.
Even as he does, he is hiding from his family, the descendents of gods. You see, the ancient pantheons in the Greek, Nordic, Roman, or Hindu world are really visitors to Earth, mages whose powers were amplified by their journey through magical gates between their world and Earth. Those gates were lost many centuries ago, stranding them here and weakening their powers. Now, Danny is about to find himself at the center of an ancient struggle to get back to their world, renew their powers, and regain control of the Earth as gods and goddesses. His very existence will reignite a power struggle between the modern descendents of the pantheons for the control of the gates, and he will be at the center of it.
While not an entirely original story, it is clever and creative. A young boy finds out he is not actually as normal as he thought, but is really a being of unique magical powers (like Harry Potter), the son of gods (like Percy Jackson), and those powers make him among the most powerful people in the world. Orson Scott Card brings his own flavor to the story, but it is a story that has been done better before.
Even so, The Lost Gate is full of interesting ideas. Some of the best sections are during jumps from Danny’s perspective on Earth to that of another mage on the gods own world. While most of Danny’s story is focused on his learning about his magic, by interweaving the alternate perspective, we catch glimpses of the greater conflict, one that began thousands of years before Danny’s birth. However, the story feels rushed, and in the rush, Card’s best ideas falter. Rather than flesh out the characters and plot, the story leaps from point to point, never really building on the ideas.
In short, Card’s newest novel is too many good ideas and not enough time. The result is an average story by an above average author. Card’s intermingling of the two perspectives and their genre blending works well, setting the stage for a war between worlds. Even as the novel closes, we have only seen glimpses of the real fight, and we know that before the tale is through (this is only the first in the series), Danny will be at the center of that conflict.
Even with those glimpses, I often felt disappointed by the story-telling itself. The plot felt jumpy and lacked tension. Even on the run for his life, Danny feels more like he is meandering than fleeing. Card lets his character out of any kind of scrape that might actually threaten him, with little or no cost. At the end of the day, we all want the hero to win, but we want the win to feel like a victory, not a foregone conclusion.
Another concern I had with The Lost Gate was Card’s heavy use of info dumps. With the creation of any system of magic, an author has to explain things and fill in the reader on how things work. But Card’s info dumps were constant, going so far as to feel more like a Wikipedia entry than a piece of the story. Rather than supporting the story, the story sometimes seemed to play second fiddle to the info dumps or sudden character introductions. To be sure, the world and ideas are very interesting and very creative, but the alacrity with which Card makes stuff up to fit the situation, rather than providing all the rules upfront, makes the internal logic of the story feel contrived and inconsistent. As a result, the story hurts, even while the ideas flourish.
If that was my only complaint, the story might still have been an enjoyable experience. But problems arose when Card lets his characters talk to each other. I know, right? The audacity. But rather than move the story forward, though, the characters’ dialogue seems to get in the way. They argue and complain, bicker and whine...constantly. In one “memorable” scene, the characters seem to flip-flop between decisions they had already agreed upon just so that the dialogue can continue (and by “continue” I mean “argue”) for another page. It makes them look inconsistent and unlikeable, not to mention irritating, and it rarely does anything to affect what we can already see is going to happen next in the plot. As a result, I could not decide whether I thought a character was unlikable, or had just been poorly scripted. In the end, I rarely felt any connection with the characters, including the protagonist, Danny.
While The Lost Gate is full of ideas and potential, for me it fell flat. I found myself frustrated that I was too far into the book to put it down, but not far enough to be done.
Last comment: at the end of the novel, Card inserts an Afterword where he explains the roots of his inspiration for The Lost Gate. After thirty years, he figured out how to work the ideas together. My concern is that while it may have had its genesis 30 years ago, the book feels like it was rushed to be finished in the last month before it went to print. While Card is not G.R.R. Martin (and nobody wants to wait as long as we already do for Martin’s sequels), I do wish he would take a page out of George’s book. Slow down to redraft, rewrite, and edit. With great ideas, it’s worth the time, and I think it would make all the difference.
About Daniel Burton
Dan Burton lives in Salt Lake City, Utah, where he practices law by day and practices everything else by night. You can follow him on his blog lawafterthebar.wordpress.com where he muses on the law, current events, books, and ideas. He can be contacted at email@example.com.