Monday, 2 February 2004


L.E. Modesitt Jr
ISBN: 1-84149-252-3

Things are tough for the Iron Valleys, a small and poor nation bordering two vast and powerful ones. It has only survived so far by being just strong enough that invasion would cost more than it would gain.
Now, however, Madrien is at war with Lanachrona, struggling for control of the continent and the Iron Valleys are perfectly placed for strikes into either country, should the other control the land. Suddenly they are strategically important and it is not long before there is a Matrite invasion force heading for the border...
Alucius is a Herder of the Iron Valleys. A young man with the magical Talent that so often runs in Herder men, though this has been kept secret from the authorities that would use his skills, taking him away from the stead his family has worked for generations.

However, when war comes and he is recruited into the Militia to fight the Matrites he finds his abilities blossoming in the battle to defend his homeland. But the slave-soldiers of Madrien and the ancient magical engines they use are only the beginning, for something far darker lurks in the heart of the enemy realm. Something Alucius and his burgeoning Talent must confront before the stain of its corruption can spread any further.

For the most part, Legacies is a war story. Alucius' training in the Militia and the battles he takes part in fill the vast majority of the book. While the quality of writing is good, it is nothing special.

There is nothing here that hasn't been done before and better, without the rather pedestrian description of every event that occurs, whether in combat or out of it. The relaying of Alucius' every move in minute detail as he wanders around camp is particularly tedious and it often feels as though the author can't think of anything particularly significant to include and opts for another 'Alucius has a look around the market' scene.

The cause of this novel's rather mundane feel is difficult to pinpoint, as the writing itself is good and eminently readable while the description of each scene is concise and reasonably effective at portraying exactly what is going on, even in the most confusing battle scenes. No, the fault lies not in the writing but in the description of Alucius himself. Our hero is a blank slate of a person, showing little in the way of any actual personality.
He does what he is told and never gets angry, has no particular friends and seems to adapt to a soldier's life with remarkable speed, killing the enemy with little in the way of remorse. In fact, he shows no feeling whatsoever and it is Alucius' robotic lack of emotion that makes it hard for the reader to care even in the slightest about what he does with his spare time, never mind what happens to him in battle. Even his family, virtually non-existent in terms of the amount of page-space dedicated to them, are fleshed out more fully and possess more in the way of human characteristics.

The pacing of 'Legacies' doesn't help to offset its major faults. In fact, it adds to them. Very little actually happens during most of the book. The most exciting thing being a few desultory battles between various sides of the conflict. Alucius spends a great deal of time wandering around the enemy homeland of Madrien, seemingly just taking in the sights and indulging in the occasional slaying before suddenly developing an interest in that country's immortal ruler the Matrial and spending a few pages sneaking around her mansion.
A solid, interesting villain is a must for any fantasy story, but the Matrial herself is only shown in minute, irrelevant snatches throughout the story. Indeed, the climatic confrontation almost takes place without her and she never even utters a word during it!

Suffering from catastrophic failures of pace and characterisation as it does, 'Legacies' was never going to be a great book. The above average quality of the writing and Modesitt's smooth style don't even come close to overcoming these huge faults, resulting in a book which isn't bad, it's just...boring, middle of the road, mundane.

The reader spends the whole novel turning pages in a zombie-like trance waiting for something interesting to happen, only to find he's reached the back cover. The story passes by in a blur, its events such as they are smearing together into a rather ordinary, uninspired mass and as such I consign 'Legacies' to my 'cure for insomnia' shelf.

This review was originally written for

Sunday, 1 February 2004

First Meetings In The Enderverse

Orson Scott Card
Orbit/Times Warner
ISBN: 0-84149-311-2

To open, a word of warning: This compilation is one for those who are already acquainted with Orson Scott Card's 'Ender' series only. As a first step into this universe of child prodigies and moral philosophy, it would be a disaster. Not so much dropping the reader into the deep end as catapulting them into it.

Comprised of three stories expanding on previously uncovered areas and the original novella upon which the phenomenally successful 'Ender's Game' was based, it is a must-have for fans of the series but a poor starting block for first-time readers.

In 'The Polish Boy' we are introduced to Ender Wiggin's father as a young child, as much a genius as his son would come to be but raised to resent the International Fleet by his father. The family is Polish and Catholic and, in a nation under virtual occupation by international forces for its refusal to comply with birth-control regulations and various other ordinances, it is no surprise that when the eldest children are due to be tested for entry to the Fleet's Battle School there is a conflict between the family and the examiners. However, in the end it is not the older children but the five-year-old John Paul that attracts the interest of the Fleet...

'Teacher's Pest' covers the first meetings between Ender's parents, the brilliant pupil John Paul and his young post-graduate teacher, Theresa. Through political arguments and the course of their studies it shows how they came to fall in love and sets the scene for the events of 'Ender's Game'.

The novella that formed the basis of that novel is shorter and less detailed than the book itself, beginning with Ender's appointment of commander of one of the 'armies' in the Fleet's Battle School - a place where the teams of prodigal children take part in intensive mock wars to determine who is the best strategist and tactician. 'Ender's Game' follows him into Command School and through the war against the aliens for which he has been trained, all the way to that conflict's terrible conclusion.

Finally, 'The Investment Councillor' describes the grown-up Ender's first encounter with the computer intelligence, Jane, a being who is to become one of the most important characters in the books that follow. As Ender reaches his majority and the trust fund set up for him by the military is released into his control, an unscrupulous accountant attempts to claim much of the money for himself and inadvertently discovers Ender's identity. Ender searches for a way to deal with the problem and Jane reveals herself as his only hope, finding a solution in her own inimitable style.

The three new pieces are typical of Card's work. The writing is fresh and the dialogue sharp, words as always being used in weapons. Each conversation or discussion has the feel of a battle being fought, with the speakers weighing each phrase carefully and reading deep meaning into every word. These hugely confrontational yet cerebral discourses ensure that the stories never lack tension despite the absence of any action in the usual physical sense.

'The Polish Boy' is particularly excellent in this regard. The young John Paul's duels with the International Fleet personnel are both riveting and strangely disconcerting. Seeing a five-year-old argue grown men and women into giving him what he wants is a bizarre and slightly disturbing thing.

While 'Teacher's Pest' and 'The Investment Councillor' involve only adults, 'The Polish Boy' and 'Ender's Game' are primarily centred around children, the prodigal juveniles suitable for Battle School. The problem lies in their very precocity - they talk and act so much like adults that the reader must constantly remind themselves that they are children. There is nothing childish about them and as such, their intelligence and adult mannerisms seem unnatural and alien. They are forced to act as grown-ups by the situation at Battle School, but does their very nature make them so mature as John Paul acts in 'The Polish Boy'? It doesn't seem to mesh with reality and that is this series' only major problem. Certainly nothing else about the stories fails to please - the plots are engaging and realistic, the dialogue authentic and the writing stylish.

'Ender's Game' is a different story altogether. While the novel itself was everything mentioned above, the novella that birthed it is clearly unedited from Card's original and early work, for even the writing style is changed. Much of the subtlety that usually characterises Card's work is missing and the novella drops into becomes dangerously cloying in places, particularly towards the end. While the story remains basically the same, much of the build up, particularly Ender's life before Battle School, is missing and some would argue that that early insight into the boy's world is essential to understand what makes him tick. This curious view of the development of the story is interesting as a concept rather than a great read and detracts from the overall quality of the compilation.

Nonetheless, 'First Meetings' is, while not for everyone, a must-have for any aficionado of Card's work and as such a person I grant it an honourable place on my 'Fanboys only' shelf.

This review was originally written for