"He drank the creamy liquid. Immediately he began to inflate and rise like a balloon. The Giant laughed."
Ender's Game on Google Books / Ender's Game on Amazon
Ender's Shadow on Google Books / Ender's Shadow on Amazon
I know that the award-winning sf novel Ender's Game has had a lot of power for many of the sensitive and intelligent boys in my life. Reading it finally, I understand why. Brilliant young (very young: six years old) Andrew "Ender" Wiggin is recruited for Battle School by a futuristic society preparing for war against a race of alien "Buggers." Because of his intelligence and also his native leadership qualities, including an instinctive empathy but also a thousand other skills that interact to add up to a good leader, he is promoted quickly and a lot of responsibility lands on his shoulders.
Ender is not just your typical precocious character. He's not really a child, or at least not the way we think of children. His thinking is nuanced and precise, and he instinctively or consciously grasps a lot about human nature -- both the irrational, emotional side and the rational, calculating, manipulative side. In his introduction, Orson Scott Card defends himself against accusations that "children don't behave like this," saying that small children hide their rationality and understanding from adults. I don't know if this is true. Certainly I felt rational and understanding as a precocious little six-year-old myself, but do I believe that kids that age have as advanced an understanding of human nature as the characters in the book? Well... not really. I've read too many Newsweek articles about the development of the frontal lobe and what-have-you.
But that controversy, while Card takes it very seriously and passionately, is somewhat irrelevant to my enjoyment of the book, which was complete and absorbing. The "game" of the title (one of the games, anyway) is a simulation of war, and the book's discussion of strategies is simply fascinating. In addition there's Ender's own sense of burden and weariness as he gets more and more of humanity's hopes pinned on him. The characterizations are deeply felt and deeply human, while the action all takes place within a well-crafted, well-paced plot.
Ender's Shadow takes place over almost the exact same time-frame -- it follows the experience of Bean, who's even younger than Ender and possibly even smarter, making up in intelligence for what he lacks in the human understanding Ender is so remarkable for. It's interesting as a character study and provides a new perspective on a lot of Ender's experiences in the first book -- I read the two only days apart and it was quite the submersion experience. But it's not as affecting, because Bean, though fully-realized and extremely brilliant, doesn't have the same epic-hero quality as Ender does, and also perhaps because its pacing is a bit too sprawling -- it's significantly longer than Game.
I feel like I finished this book a better person. I'm not at all a fan of didacticism in books, but in this case I was living through a riveting, sometimes harrowing educational experience with Ender. And I feel very privileged to have done so.
In summary: Recommended, even if you're not a boy (I'm not), even if you're not into epics (I'm not), even if you're not into sf (despite the BSG obsession, I'm not).
PS. I was going to go into a whole rant about the paucity of female characters, but I'm too tired to write about it with much nuance. Let's just say it made me a bit cranky but didn't really spoil my enjoyment of the book.