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Book cover art by Lisa Falkenstern (left).
Review © 2008 by Thomas M. Wagner.
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Dig into the "Shadow" novels that make up what might be called the "second wave" of Orson Scott Card's Ender saga, and you'll find books that stand in sharp contrast to the three novels that followed Ender's Game itself. Those titles — Speaker for the Dead, Xenocide and Children of the Mind — were deeply contemplative and centered on the relationships between Ender and a host of, shall we say, rather emotionally tortured characters. The Shadow novels retain the interest in interpersonal dynamics (Card is basically incapable of writing any novel that lacks such a focus), but the narrative goals are all about action and suspense this time, without asking so much from the reader in the way of a furrowed brow.

Following Ender's victory against the Formics, the world is a changed place. With the alien enemy defeated, humanity, once united under the Hegemon, has quickly settled back into business as usual. Nations reestablish themselves and rattle sabers. A new world order is indeed in the offing. Ender is quickly shipped off to a colony world to calm global concern over what America might do, led by such a great military leader. And the remaining graduates of Battle School return to their home countries to try to settle into a life they never really grew up enough to know in the first place.

The new X factor is Achilles de Flandres, Bean's bete noire from his childhood as a Rotterdam street urchin. Achilles is psychotic, but a cunning manipulator. Having gotten kicked out of Battle School by Bean, Achilles has ingratiated himself to the Russian government, and he arranges for the abduction of every member of Ender's "jeesh," the Dragon Army — the Battle School platoon he commanded in his victory against the Formics. Power hungry countries all want Ender's former soldiers under their control, as valuable assets in whatever wars yet loom on the horizon. But Achilles has plans of his own, and finds more than enough power hungry countries eager to be led, and misled, by his machinations.

Bean is singled out for special treatment by Achilles, who just tries to assassinate him outright. Bean, the ultimate survivor, tries to stay one step ahead of Achilles' plans. With his surrogate mother figure Sister Carlotta, who rescued both him and Achilles from thier homelessness, he travels the globe like a fugitive, cloaked under false identities. While events in the east spiral towards world war, as Achilles sets in motion an invasion of southeast Asia by India that is certain to provoke a response by the imperialist Chinese, Bean urges Ender's arrogant but brillant older brother Peter to shore up the fading Hegemony by becoming Hegemon himself. And there is also the matter of his former classmate Petra Arkanian, who is held hostage by Achilles in India, all too obviously as bait to lure Bean.

Shadow of the Hegemon is a political and military thriller, straight up. What it lacks in intellectual and thematic muscle it tries, more or less successfully, to make up for with white-knuckle excitement. It's enjoyable on those terms, though too often, events click too conveniently into place in order to get the plot where Card wants it to go. For instance, given their centuries of mutual animosity, it's v-e-r-y hard to believe that even Achilles could be such a winning and charismatic person as to persuade both India and Pakistan to withdraw its armies from one another's borders with a heap of sugar-coated and all too clearly bogus promises — and do so in the space of a single high-level meeting with Pakistan's leader.

I know these books predate the Matt Damon Bourne movies, which were casually based on the Robert Ludlum novels. But with their slick pacing and sense of urgency laced with paranoia, they subscribe to much the same race-against-time escapist sensibility. If Shadow of the Hegemon were a movie, it would be shot entirely with hand-held cameras and be edited by someone whose Ritalin was withheld from him until he finished the job.

Okay, so maybe the book isn't that frantic. But while readers who have followed this series from the start may find themselves disappointed to see the whole thing steering towards popcorn entertainment, I kind of found it refreshing that Card was able to deliver such a novel at a point in his career that many fans had begun to believe was inching past its sell-by date. Or perhaps it was simply that, having gotten all of the spiritual angst wrung out of the tale following the exceedingly serious Xenocide and Mind, and riding the wave of renewed goodwill that followed the surprising artistic success of Ender's Shadow, Card decided it was time to give Ender fans a plain old-fashioned ripping yarn.

Thing is, he delivered the whole package in Ender's Game. So despite its pleasures, Shadow of the Hegemon is yet a shadow of this saga's established greatness.

Followed by Shadow Puppets.