The Lost Gate, by Orson Scott Card. Tor, 2011. 384 pp. 978-0-7653-2657-7.
... in which a boy with forbidden magical powers explores his heritage and achieves the impossible.
Sometimes, I feel sorry for Orson Scott Card. Imagine producing a truly brilliant book early in your career... a book that is soon considered to be a cornerstone of its genre. Now imagine trying to spend the rest of your career trying to match that book, and always falling a little short. Perhaps the best way to enjoy Card's work would be to read Ender's Game last, so as to not build up your expectations.
The Lost Gate is about a boy born into a family of magicians. The magicians left on Earth are divided into clans... the Norths, the Greeks, etc. Our protagonist, Danny, is a member of the North clan. Centuries ago, these families of magicians were revered as gods in their respective cultures... Odin hailed from the North clan, Zeus from the Greeks, and so on. Their power was enhanced by their ability to travel between Earth and their home planet of Westil. They traveled between planets via gates, basically holes that act as teleporters. Think of the "windows" that Will cuts between worlds using the knife in Philip Pullman's book The Subtle Knife. Every time someone passed through the gate between Earth and Westil, their power was enhanced. Unfortunately for all of the Westilians lording it up on Earth, a member of the North clan went around and stole all of the gates, large and small. The gate thief was Loki, the trickster of Norse mythology. This gate thievery led to war between the clans, and eventually gate-magery of any kind was forbidden, since any family to have a gate mage would have access to Westil and therefore would have significantly more power than all of the other families. Poor Danny is born a gate-mage, which is doubly bad since he's a member of the North clan, the clan that started the whole gate-thievery fuss to begin with. Since the tradition is to kill anyone showing any inclination towards making gates, Danny flees his family's compound for the wider world, where he conveniently meets up with a variety of allies who can help him develop his skills. As it usually works in these books, it's a ragtag bunch of people and of course Danny turns out to have the potential to be one of the greatest gate-mages in history.
Interspersed with Danny's story are snippets of the story of a boy on the planet Westil. The boy, named Wad, comes from mysterious origins and also has the power to create gates. He's a kitchen boy working in the castle of the king and queen, and quickly gets caught up in their political intrigue. Eventually, his storyline meets up with Danny's.
I really liked the premise of The Lost Gate. The system of magic is somewhat different than those in current popular works of fantasy, and is quite a bit earthier than the magic in the Harry Potter series. The historical background, with each family being the weaker descendants of god-like magicians, adds a lot of texture to the story and really explains the desperation that the family elders feel when they see the weak magic of the younger generations. I also like how the magic isn't easy... in the Harry Potter books, if you have a wand and know the right movement and the right words, you have instant results. In this book, magic is more of an art form, and each individual has very specific areas of specialty. I would have liked to have the magic a little more explicitly explained, because I'm still a little fuzzy on some aspects, but overall I did like that part of the story.
The weakest aspect of the book is, by far, its hugely irregular pacing. The book lurches along, with important events happening all at once or with sudden jumps ahead in time. There are also fairly long parts of the book that seemed somewhat irrelevant, and mostly served to let us see how clever Danny is. The parts of the book that are set in Westil are more evenly paced, and easier to follow, but the Westilian parts probably only account for less than a quarter of the book.
The other big problem with the book is that very few of the characters are likable. Most of Danny's family is kind of hateful, and since the story is told through Danny's eyes, we don't really know why they're so hateful. And since Card explains that, like Loki, all gate-mages are tricksters and con-men, it just so happens that Danny himself is a little bit hateful. He's arrogant, a little foolish, impulsive, self-centered, and not inclined to take many things seriously, even when other people are putting their lives on the line for him. I guess it's not his fault that he's that way, since apparently that's his predestined personality.
My inclination is to give this book 3/5 stars, because I liked the setting but disliked the pacing and the characters. However, there are a few redeeming things about the book that make me want to bump up the rating. First of all, I am definitely interested to see what happens next, so I will be reading the sequel. If the book is engaging enough to bring me willingly back in for a second installment, then something is going right, I think. I want to see what happens to the characters, and I want to see how the wider effects of Danny's actions affect all of the clans. Secondly, at the end of the book, Danny shows some really genuine progress towards becoming a likable, if flawed, character. Character development is important to me, so if Card is willing to flesh out his characters and show that they're growing in some fashion, then I'm satisfied.