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Book cover art by Bob Warner (left).
Review © 2008 by Thomas M. Wagner.
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Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer. This old adage is what motivates the actions of Peter Wiggin in Shadow Puppets, and it's symptomatic of the problems that cripple this book. Here we are asked to believe that Peter, whose online essays as "Locke" have shown such preternatural brilliance and astute comprehension of geopolitics that a word from him can steer the course of nations, has, from the moment of assuming the office of Hegemon, abandoned every vestige of that brilliance, only to make nothing but idiotic decisions that quite literally invite his arch-enemy, Achilles de Flandres, to walk through the front door and usurp the reins of power. If what happens at the end of this book's penultimate chapter had happened at the beginning of its first, sure, Card couldn't have gotten a book out of it. But that's the problem. The only way to get a book out of the story as Card had allowed it to develop was to engage the classic "idiot plot." If Peter hadn't decided to be an idiot, we'd have no story.

Achilles has been arrested by the Chinese government. In Shadow of the Hegemon, it always was a bit of a stretch to believe that Achilles, a character who does not exactly take pains to conceal the fact that he's a cold-blooded psychotic murderer, could be so incredibly charismatic as to make the governments of Russia, Pakistan and India fall at his feet and grant his every whim. But considering the history of human civilization has often been driven by the whims of charismatic psychos, one could not exactly dismiss the plot conceit out of hand.

Anyway, Peter has the convoy transporting Achilles ambushed in order to ...rescue him? Yes, that's right. Peter arranges to have the man responsible for kidnapping a dozen members of Ender's Battle School army, holding Petra Arkanian hostage, trying to kill Bean not once but several times with missiles, and machinating a war that has led to the invasion of India and most of southeast Asia by the Chinese, brought back to the Hegemony compound in Brazil and entrusted with a position of power. Peter's feeble justification is that he feels this is the best way to "control" Achilles. Knowing as we do from reading the previous two books that Achilles is a force of pure elemental evil that cannot be controlled, Peter is simply being conveniently stupid. There is literally no reason for Peter to do anything with Achilles other than kill him outright. But again, if he did that, where would Card get his book from?

That's why Shadow Puppets fails. When you realize the book is rooted in a character behaving out of character, so that a conflict that need not exist at all can be forced into place to serve the needs of a novelist looking for a way to expand a bestselling series, then it's difficult to feel much sympathy. Sure, I could feel sympathy for some of the other characters affected by Peter's choice (like Peter's long-suffering parents), many of whom are in full agreement that Peter's actions have been head-smackingly dumb. Peter has always been, despite his brilliance, a bit of an immature and petulant egomaniac, but he's never been a baldfaced fool. Until now — until Card needed him to be to get a novel out of it.

I wish I could say that the other characters are, at least, less foolish. Alas. The other principal conflict in the book arises when Petra and Bean, now married, decide to have children. Again, this is simply inviting trouble, and Bean at least knows it. For one thing, any child of Bean's is more than likely to have the genetic defect that will cause his unrestrained growth to kill him before he makes it to twenty. Plus, the offspring of two top-notch Battle School alums, particularly such important alums as Bean and Petra, will be prime targets for abduction. And now that Achilles has conveniently been freed (thanks, Peter), he's in a position to arrange it. Yes yes, says Petra, she knows all that, but, well, she just can't bear for Bean to die and not leave children behind. Ah well. Must be a chick thing.

So Bean and Petra visit the shady character responsible for Bean's condition in the first place, in order to have embryos cloned to see which may or may not have Bean's defect. And once viable embryos have been extracted, well, you'll never guess what happens.

You get the picture. I wanted to be entertained by this book, I really did. And from the standpoint of simple reading pleasure, it is much easier to take in many ways than Xenocide or Children of the Mind. But that's only because it follows the more action-oriented narrative template of Hegemon. But it's a story in which smart characters do dumb things simply to serve the needs of a plot. Peter frees Achilles so Achilles can usurp him, and Bean and Petra have babies so that they can be kidnapped. I could say more about some aspects of Card's political and religious naivety here, in the way he has the radical Islamic world experience one of his famous "what were we thinking?" moments, realizing just how ineffective they've been in fighting the west so futilely, and amending their ways even to the extent of reconciling with Israel, because, well, what were they thinking! I could, but I weary.

Followed by Shadow of the Giant.