Anyone who knows me knows that I’m an Orson Scott Card junkie. I like the way he writes, and like the people he writes about. That said, I was not as impressed with his book “Empire“, when it came out a few years ago. I’m not sure why. Perhaps it was the fact that his main character gets killed half-way into the book. Perhaps it’s just a little too close to our current time. Perhaps it’s because it reads almost more like a Tom Clancy. It was a good book, but not one that got me excited.
So when Hidden Empire came out last year I didn’t rush to buy it. Or even borrow it. For one, I was knee-deep in writing a novel of my own at the time, and for another…well, there were other by him I’d rather read first. I did, however, put it on my Christmas wish list, and by golly, my wife bought for me! (Thank you, dear!)
Hidden Empire is a sequel to a novel that was written as a companion product to a video game (hence, evidently, the need to kill off the main character half-way through), and is based on the premise that a historian, learning from history, can foresee the decline and fall of America, and has determined the only way to save it is to turn it into an empire run by an enlightened dictator. Through a long series of events, this historian becomes President of the United States, and helps put down a rebellion with the help of the second-string main characters.
Hidden Empire picks up from there, focusing mostly on Col. Coleman and Cecily Malich as a new plague sweeps Africa. Equipped with some fancy gadgets (the main sci-fi element), Coleman and his team are sent to Nigeria to help protect afflicted tribes from genocide, but find themselves pawns in President Torrent’s mechanations to establish his American Empire.
As a side plot, Cecily Malich and her son Mark wrestle with what it means to be a Christian, and end up going to Africa as well to assist plague victims. As a person of faith, I found it refreshing to have religion discussed frankly and positively as opposed to being the root of all evil, as prevades most entertainment these days. But that and the right-leaning ideology of the characters is likely to rub many liberal readers the wrong way (as it seems to do, looking at the Amazon.com reviews).
While it’s true that Card feels similarly to his characters on most topics, what many people miss is that he is also being true to his characters. The US military tends to be a conservative group. They tend to be religious. That Card doesn’t feel the need to put them down for it is bound to bug some people.
But ultimately Card’s biggest problem is that he’s writing about near-current events. No matter how he feels about many modern issues (people might be surprised–he’s not as conservative as they might think), merely mentioning them in this context is going to trigger all the knee-jerk reactions that accompany those issues from people on both sides. In short, set something in space hundreds of years in the future and people are more successful at being apolitical. Set it in a modern, familiar setting, and the reader’s ideology is going to color their reception of the book considerably.
It’s a good, quick read. I enjoyed it. It didn’t hit me as deeply as many of his others. It reads much like several of of the “Shadow” series books, only without the deeper discussion of strategy and psychology. Card admits in the Acknowledgements that this is not the book he set out to write, and perhaps it shows. By deciding to take it in another direction while under a deadline may have resulted in novel with less depth than most Card readers are used to. Not that Empire was all that deep, either.
I had to wonder, though, if Card really told the story he wanted to tell here. When the immediate danger of the plague is over and the survivors return home I thought we were through with the book and were just winding things down. But no, suddenly we have a second climax that feels tacked on, followed by a rather unsatisfying ending reminiscent of Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith, and a decision by the hero that, while not entirely unexpected, doesn’t seem quite to fit him, either.
Card is at his best in taking us into the unfamiliar and showing us the not only the familiarity of it, but often the accompanying beauty of it. He’s good at showing us the interplay of minds. We don’t get that as much here, and while I don’t feel cheated–it’s a fun, entertaining story–I don’t feel a compelling need to rush out and pick up the next book, either. Assuming there will be one.
If I were to give it a rating, I’d probably go with three out of five stars, but that would be unfair to Card. It’s only because I think so highly of him that I expect more from him. The same book written by someone else would probably merit four stars. The same book written by me would be a miracle.
The Empire series is an interesting experiment for Card, and I’d be interested in how he feels it’s going. For me, it’s got many of the elements that makes Card Card, but it’s still somehow missing the mental depth and zing that I enjoy so much. It’s almost like he’s constrained somehow and not able to really tell the story he wants to tell. Or he’s not yet sure what that story is.
As I said, it’s an entertaining book. But I doubt I’ll be coming back to it again the way I have some of his others. This is no “Speaker for the Dead”. But it’s a good read.