Book Review: Earth Afire, by Orson Scott Card and Aaron Johnston

It’s no secret Orson Scott Card likes to play in the universe he created with his Ender series. It’s also no secret his fans like him to play there. Most of that play, however, has taken place in the vast stretch of time after the original Enders Game. He did, however, do a “prequel” comic book series through Marvel comics about the Formic Wars before “Ender’s Game”.

Now he’s revisiting, with the help of Aaron Johnston, that period again with a series of novels covering the First Formic War. The first was “Earth Unaware“, which begins with a family of asteroid miners scraping out an existance on the edge of the solar system when an alien ship comes calling. “Earth Afire” picks up where the first left off. One of the miners sent to warn Earth succeeds in getting there, but has difficulty convincing anyone to take the threat seriously. Meanwhile Mazer Rackham, a name that should be familiar to most Ender-philes, is sent to China to help train their mililtary on a new air transport vehicle. Then the alien ship arrives at Earth and the invasion begins. Outmatched and hopelessly entangled in global politics, Earth’s fight becomes immediately desperate. Enemies become friends, and alliances are made in an attempt to turn the tide.

This is most certainly the Enderverse in all it’s complexity, but it reads more like the “Bean” books than the Ender series. While Card presents characters with his usual complexity, the book spends less time on human interactions and more time on the action. For some this is a feature. For me it’s perhaps a bug. I enjoyed “Ender’s Game”, and I enjoyed the Bean series. But “Speaker for the Dead” is my all-time Card favorite, and the introspective aspects carry through into “Xenocide”, and “Children of the Mind”.

But that is Card writing nearly thirty years ago. Authors change, and it seems Card has been making an effort to pump up the action and tone down the psychology. In his “Empire” series he’s only moderately successful, in my mind. He seems to get it better here.

The main trouble I had was confusion over titles. When my family offered to buy this for me for Fathers’ Day I thought this was the first book. It’s not. Fortunately he fills you in on the key points as you go, so my enjoyment of the story wasn’t impaired. However, it might have been enhanced had I read the first book beforehand.

The ending seems a little abrupt and rushed. It’s as if they realized the story was longer than a single book and decided they needed to find an “up” moment to end on before diving into the third book. You get your small victory, but little time to enjoy it.

The novel is clearly in the “aliens invade earth” sub-genre, and it doesn’t take much thinking to come up with comparisons to “Independence Day”. But then “Independence Day” can easily be compared with many other entries in the same sub-genre. As a general rule, if you’re going to have aliens invade earth, it’s going to be a “David vs. Goliath” story, and the solution is not going to come by beating them in a straight-up fight, but by being sneaky and clever–by pulling an “Ender”.

So, knowing that the novel is going to employ many of the same tropes, it’s not hard to spot the Chekovian “guns on the wall” that come back to play key roles. I knew how they would destroy the alien landers before their landers even arrived, but then the main plot line wasn’t so much as about that as how the main characters would survive long enough to be able to use those tools. I think Card knew we’d spot the clues and figured he wouldn’t have to help us put the pieces together, so the ending was abrupt partly because he knew we didn’t need to be coddled toward it.

In spite of the deficiencies I enjoyed it. I wasn’t yanked through by my nose-hairs like a Dan Wells novel, but I was always eager to get back to it. I can’t say I’m solidly connecting with any of the characters (except perhaps Rackham), but I do care about them and want them to succeed for their own sakes, not just to beat the bad guys (bugs?). The story moves along at an energetic pace, and the prose is clear. The story is told from at least six different viewpoints, but it doesn’t ever seem crowded, and we never seem to spend long away from where the action is.

If not “Card at his storytelling best”, this is certainly “Card delivering solidly.” It’s not going down as his masterpiece, but he’s made no bones about wanting to make a living from his writing, which usually means quanity ahead of quality. He’s not trying for that One Great Book that will secure his name for eternity. Besides, he’s been there, done that.

Lucky for me I can now go back and get the first book to help tie me over until the next one comes out. I’ll be getting both.

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