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Book cover art by John Harris.
Review © 2008 by Thomas M. Wagner.
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[This review contains mild spoilers.]

It's easy to go all cynical about a book like Ender in Exile, stomping on its creator with de rigeur criticisms of riding past glories and reducing the legacy of his greatest work to that of a paycheck-collecting franchise. But neither of those are valid criticisms of this book. If anything, Exile is far better than most of Card's work this decade, quite a lot of which, truth to tell, has been pretty dire. Card is at home in the Ender universe, and to whatever degree his sequels to Ender's Game over the years have been good, bad or indifferent, it cannot be said that his heart hasn't been in them.

I liked a great deal of Ender in Exile, but ended up torn over some storytelling choices Card makes that, on balance, I have to say work more against the story than in its favor. The novel is entertaining, much moreso than I was expecting. But too many key scenes — like those involving a subplot about a flamboyant Italian woman who drags her wallflower daughter along on the voyage to the first human colony Ender is set to govern in the hopes of marrying her off to him — favor melodrama over drama. And the climax of the book sets up a confrontation that resolves in an implausible way, simply so that Card can revisit the series' ongoing theme of redemption. Sans anything resembling subtlety this time. It's an okay book that could have been a very good book (if not the equal of Ender's Shadow, Card's previous reboot of this series) had Card resisted some of his more ill-considered indulgences.

Picking up right where the original novel left off, Ender in Exile is the story of Ender's travels with his sister Valentine. Ender's victory against the alien hive-mind formics has saved the Earth, but many of the nations of Earth don't want him to come home, afraid of what such a great military leader might do in America's hands. For appearance's sake, Col. Graff, Ender's Battle School commander, undergoes a court martial, the sole purpose of which is to damage Ender's reputation — by emphasizing the two bullies he killed in self-defense — and make it impossible for him to return home. To get him out of the way, Ender is offered the governorship of a fledgling colony which will come to be called Shakespeare. Valentine, sick of her web presence as "Demosthenes", foil to their ambitious brother Peter, goes with him.

Outwardly, Ender can justify his killings of the two boys. But inwardly, he is wracked with guilt, so much so that he uses the boys' names as his computer passwords. I like a conflicted hero, don't get me wrong. But in Exile, Ender comes off as a Christ-figure more shamelessly than he's ever done in any of the other books. He doesn't merely insist on rubbing his own nose in the boys' deaths in even the pettiest of ways, but he's become obsessed with the formics, especially the question of why they allowed themselves to be beaten. And they did allow it, as the technology behind the Molecular Disruption Device that scoured their homeworld was theirs, and they foolishly (or deliberately?) allowed all of their queens to congregate on that one world rather than spread them out over many worlds.

Ender gets an answer to this question on Shakespeare, and though it satisfies him I'm not entirely sure it satisfied me. But even here Ender cannot fully get beyond his self-flagellation. The aforementioned implausible climax resolves an issue from Shadow of the Giant (that's right, this isn't only a sequel to EG, and if you haven't read the Shadow novels there are spoilers here), and in it Ender takes self-sacrifice and turning the other cheek to pathological extremes, until his nemesis has a sudden epiphany and reverses an entire lifetime of brainwashing in an instant of guilty revelation. It is, to put it politely, a tough one to swallow. But it's of a piece with Card's handling of character through the whole book.

Indeed, Card has a big problem in general with resolving conflicts by having people experience a "what was I thinking?" moment. Epiphanies! Everybody has them. People pour their hearts out to one another in voluminous emails that open every chapter. I mean, in Ender's Game and Speaker for the Dead, Card came by his stories' emotional truths honestly. Here, he's troweling it on as thickly as he did in Children of the Mind, in which all the characters seemed to be having a contest to outdo one another in angsty self-loathing.

The daytime TV operatics are at full volume in the subplot about Dorabella Toscano and her daughter Alessandra. The whole thing from the outset is so inevitably leading up to Alessandra's big go-girl, Growing Up Moment when she tells her controlling and manipulative (and completely delusional) mother to stick it, this is my life, that there's little to do while it all plays out but chuckle at the cheesy excess of it all. I get the idea Card has embraced the stereotype of the wanton, lusty Italian with a teenage boy's hormonal abandon, as it's impossible to visualize Dorabella as anything other than a young Sophia Loren leaning from a villa balcony with her décollatage spilling out across the whole Adriatic. Ender, meanwhile, like any good Christ-analogue, chastely declines Alessandra's inexperienced advances, knowing full well how her beeyatch of a mother is pulling her strings. Mom, who's constructed an elaborate fantasy life to overcompensate for her own mother's abuse, has — natch — become her mother without knowing it, you see, and finally gets her comeuppance when...

...aaaaaaaaaagh! I can't go on! It's just too much! But you get the idea. I never said it wasn't entertaining. But it's pure soap on a rope and certainly not the kind of smarm Card has ever seen fit to introduce into one of his Ender novels before now.

Look, I know this book is critic-proof, and the only questions fans of the series will have is whether or not it fits well into the existing continuity, and doesn't commit any overly egregious screwups. I suppose it works by those standards. (Card does admit to some continuity issues with earlier books and announces that EG will be reissued with a revised final chapter.) The book's actual good scenes are the ones mostly set on the Shakespeare colony, where Ender still has many aging admirers among the older war veterans, and uses his natural leadership skills to show them equal respect in return and motivate them to make their colony a success.

Yes, Card does have his heart in his Ender stories to a degree beyond anything else he's written, save perhaps for the early Alvin Maker novels. I'm not sure that Ender in Exile is a story that desperately needed to be told. But now that it has, I can say that it was, if nothing else, treated with consummate integrity by its author, and not as a lazy exercise in cashing in on a pre-sold title. Sure, I'd have appreciated less kitschy melodrama, less hand-wringing emotional self-recrimination, and more of the nuanced approach to character and story we got in EG, Speaker, and Shadow. In the end, the fact that this book's modest artistic success can be judged the best thing Orson Scott Card has written in years feels less like praise than a sobering reminder of the heights from which he's fallen.