John's Reviews > Pathfinder

Pathfinder by Orson Scott Card
Rate this book
Clear rating

's review
Nov 06, 2011

liked it
bookshelves: fantasy
Read in October, 2011 — I own a copy

The first volume of Orson Scott Card’s Pathfinder trilogy centers on the adventures Rigg, a precocious 13 year old who can see the paths where individual animals and humans have once traveled. Rigg’s adventure begins as he honors his Father’s last request to find his sister who just happens to be a dethroned princess. So yes, that makes Rigg a lost prince who on his quest predictably gathers a few loyal friends who protect each other from a dark conspiracy. And so proceeds this classically romantic tale featuring daring escapes, magic powers, extraordinary courage and even secret passages.

However, because this is a Scott Card fantasy it is more than merely an adolescent adventure tale. In fact there are two fantasies which entwine and slowly unfold the basic premise of the trilogy throughout this first volume. In this it resembles Card’s Worthing Saga which also has an intermittent premise-story pretending to be all science in contrast to the larger narrative of magical doings. The inter-relationship of Pathfinder’s two stories should be obvious to all who have read their Asimov, but apparently enough readers were confused that Card had to write an explanation in the acknowledgments. So after carefully interlacing the stories so as to subtly reveal critical information piecemeal, the powers-that-be make him explain it all. I heard that in volume two they were going to make him explain all his jokes. But that might not be true.

In our main story the magical “knack” of three members of Card’s fellowship is to manipulate time in different ways. This predictably leads to all kinds of paradoxes. Rather than trying to maintain logical consistency the author embraces the paridoxicality, and lets his characters struggle with the inevitable conundra of time travel. This sometimes leads to brain-bending and humorous dialogue. I think it is refreshing to see the characters struggle to answer the same questions the reader is posing, but even after I grew accustomed to this free-wheeling approach to time travel, I was still left wondering why we had all wasted so much time in dialogue which did not further the plot, nor develop the characters. Of course, Card’s characters often get preachy, but that kind of dialogue always has a moral objective and tends to develop the characters. Here the purpose seems to be only that in the end these characters are just as confused as any of us would be.

While Card is quite accomplished in writing about intellectually super-powered boys, here he has exceeded this reader’s ability to suspend disbelief. Even granting that Rigg’s Father was a superb Socratic trapper, it seems impossible to teach savvy and sophistication in a wilderness tutorial without any exposure to urban, educated society. This was almost on par with eight month old Bean climbing into a toilet tank to avoid a murderer. Space warps and time travel I can swallow. But I know smart kids and this one just ain’t real.

I have read most of Scott Card’s novels, and I think the characterization in this book is sub-par for several reasons. Rigg appears as emotionally strange as he is super-savvy. For example, though this thirteen year old orphan sorrows at this father’s death, he quickly puts it behind him. It seems peculiar that throughout the rest of the book Rigg seems neither traumatized nor lost without his tutor and constant companion. This is more bizarre than pathfinding.

Despite Rigg’s analytical brilliance, he fails to suspect that Father is not dead when it is obvious to us readers. Even more glaring is midway through the story, after Rigg has demonstrated his amazing boldness, bravery, cleverness and strength, he suddenly, inexplicably curls up shivering and whimpering on the floor with fear. It just doesn’t ring true. Maybe it was a moment of PTSD. On another occasion Rigg acts particularly bratty and justifies it by saying “Why not?” This teen-like response seems totally out of character with Rigg’s previous calculating, ultra-rational behavior.

The most conspicuous dialogue used to develop the character and friendship of our heroes is an incessant stream of sarcasm which apparently is how real men express affection. OK maybe, but in this book it does not work well in part because the sharp banter is not well age differentiated. All our heroes are peers in wit, ability, and the constant disposition to slam with cleverness. The consequence is that instead of sarcasm adding a distinctive voice or personality, everyone sounds like the same smart-ass character. I think this lack of individuality makes it harder to be emotionally invested in the characters. I also think a little sarcasm goes a long way, and a steady stream soon inures one to the cleverness and the irony of the dialogue. That which is supposed to sparkle and zing eventually becomes monotone.

Orson Scott Card is a master at using science fiction to examine the nature of humanity. Pathfinder does not do justice to Card’s gifts. There are no great moral dilemmas, and there are minimal internal conflicts driving the plot. Another of Card’s gifts is to create believable people who are struggling against themselves and circumstances to be good and moral. When he succeeds in this kind of characterization he inspires us to be better ourselves. But in this case he failed to inspire because Rigg is mostly just another super-smart adolescent hero.

It deserves two stars, I give it three out of sheer lealdage.

Sign into Goodreads to see if any of your friends have read Pathfinder.
Sign In »

No comments have been added yet.