About halfway through Ender’s Game I was already thinking of how I would start this review. The sentence I had in mind was, “This novel is great,” figuring I’d put all my cards on the table right away before launching into the finer details. However, around the last perhaps 80 pages, the novel started to slip, and by the very end, I was left quite dissatisfied. I must amend my sentence with a qualifier: This novel is great until…
Let’s start at the beginning, for Ender’s Game gave me a good beginning and I owe it that much. The book takes place far in the future where space travel is very much a thing. The world has devolved into a mild dystopia, nothing terrible and nothing really dwelled upon, but one that acts as the backdrop to the goings on of Ender Wiggin and his family. Earth is overpopulated now, and families are only allotted two children unless the military grants them permission to have a third.
And that’s where Ender comes in. There is a certain level of unspoken eugenics in this future, nothing flat out stated but hinted at quite heavily. The military is looking for the perfect kind of person to lead its army, and there are batches of children growing up who are already as smart as, or smarter than, adults. The three Wiggin children fall into this category. Ender’s older brother Peter is smart but also psychotic and violent. His sister Valentine is just as smart but much more subdued and nice, though too much so to make a great military leader. Ender is the third child, and one the military hopes will be somewhere exactly in between his older brother and sister.
To the military’s greatest pleasure, Ender is that person. He has a cold, calculating mindset and ability for violence like Peter, but he also has a side that yearns for peace and simplicity. This dichotomy comes into play throughout the novel as Ender has to fight his diverse natures and emotions. The biggest battles in Ender’s Game take place in Ender’s mind, and it all works so very well.
He is a child divided, and while he tries desperately to understand himself, he’s put through terrible trials in order to be molded into a military leader, the one Earth desperately needs.
Earth’s dystopia is the first backdrop to Ender’s Game and the second is the Bugger war that is spoken of but not ever really seen. Earth was attacked twice in the past by Buggers and now is preparing for a third invasion. If Earth’s global military cannot find an appropriate leader, the invasion will very likely end in failure and the destruction of humanity. This is said over and over to Ender and to the reader, but there are very few real hints of this actually being the case. Much like Ender, we are forced to take the word of these adults due to the high stakes involved, but the adults are never very trustworthy and always seem up to something.
This makes for a rich variety of conflict: adults vs children, adults vs adults, children vs children, and Ender vs himself.
The bulk of the novel takes place at Battle School, a floating fortress far above Earth with artificial gravity. My first thought was, “Hogwarts in space” though Ender’s Game came many years before Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. Still, the comparison is easy to grasp, but it very much doesn’t exist. Hogwarts is a place of whimsy; it’s inviting and romantic. Battle School is cold, cynical, and cruel. Hogwarts is training wizards, but Battle School is training soldiers.
I like Battle School. It’s an interesting setting, and it’s much darker than I had anticipated going in. The teachers—all military personnel—are not nice, and the students are all freakishly smart children that verge on certain levels of psychopathy. In my experiences, children are sociopaths, and it seems Orson Scott Card had similar experiences. These children are mean. Ender is small and favored by his teachers because of his intelligence, and that makes him hated. When he excels, he is hated further. No one makes his stay easy, and Ender must rely completely on his divided self to get him through the novel.
Smart children off saving the world is an archetype I’ve long since grown out of. Going into Ender’s Game was a wary experience, but the implicitly stated eugenics hand wave most of my issues. The few lingering anxieties I had left were hand waved by the characters. These children are smart, but they are still children. They train to be soldiers, they learn things I wouldn’t be able to understand, but when they are off by themselves, they question the absurdity of it all. “We are children” is a motto said often, and they miss their parents and their lost innocence. They are sacrificing their youth for the good of humanity, and they know it, and it saddens them when they are given the free time to feel emotion.
It’s easy to sympathize with all of them. It’s easy to look at the adults and marvel at their harshness and cruelty. But it’s also easy to see everything from the side of Earth. The adults very much believe in their cause, and the entirety of humanity is a large stake in this game of war. When you find yourself believing in both sides, it’s hard to emotionally detach yourself and examine everything properly, and that’s good. Ender’s Game works well in playing with not only Ender’s emotions, but the reader’s as well.
Somewhere in the early middle of the book, perhaps around the one-third mark, focus shifts from Ender to his siblings. At first I was annoyed, for I was enjoying Battle School, but it didn’t take long for me to get wrapped up in Peter and Valentine. They are interesting characters, and their vastly different personalities offer a predictably grand set of conflicts.
Peter has been examining the goings on of Earth’s politics, and he wants to get involved. It turns out that Peter is not only violent, he’s also a megalomaniac. He has dreams of ruling, and he needs Valentine’s help. She is reluctant at first, but Peter is an impressive character and we learn that he always gets his way. The two end up creating online personalities and begin directing the emotions of…well, everyone.
Valentine might be sympathetic and emotionally good, but she’s also manipulative, though it takes Peter to point this out. The two use the Internet to mask their ages and identities and set off, and what they do is both enjoyable and surprising to read.
To them, it’s a game, and to Ender, Battle School is a game. The novel is aptly named, and characters are easily manipulated through enjoyment. Battle School is all about the various games the children can play, from odd computer mind games to zero-gravity fights, and they become obsessed with them much like a young teenager might grow obsessed with his kill:death ratio in Call of Duty or Halo. They know the adults are watching and judging, but they don’t care because of the inherent competition of needing to win. They are, after all, children.
Likewise, Valentine views her and Peter’s political influences as a game because the characters they create to stir emotional trouble aren’t real. She enjoys writing essays and editorials, and often she doesn’t believe in the content she publishes. It’s a game, and much like Ender’s games, winning holds a powerful outcome for the world’s future.
The problem with Ender’s Game is Ender’s ability to win at his games. As a reader, I was on his side for much of the novel, but after a while, he simply became too good at what he was doing. He was too smart, too creative, and he never lost. The adults began to cheat, to force him and his team into unfair battles with unfair rules, but still Ender could not lose. He started to grow boring, and I began looking forward to Peter and Valentine’s chapters, for those characters had a more diverse dynamic since they were both competing with and playing off of each other. Battle School was the more fun setting of the novel, but Peter and Valentine’s political dealings became the more interesting plot points.
I believe I’ve given the bulk of Ender’s Game its due: what I owe it. It’s time to look at the “until” qualifier of my opening statement. Ender’s Game is good until the last leg of it, where the book’s major twist happens and the closing action begins and closes. It is a sad thing when a good book has a poor ending.
Ender’s Game builds itself up to a twist, and what a fine twist it is! I liked it a lot, and it felt like it worked perfectly with the rest of the book. To be sure, I was hoping for something else, because every time the adults would sneak away and chat, they made it seem like there were more dealings going on than the actuality. I had expected something grander, something bigger, but what was delivered was still very enjoyable.
But the emotional impact of this twist, this grand event that the book spent much of itself building up to, never happened. Ender spends the novel fighting with himself more than anyone else, and at the end he has to finally face this duelship in personality. He doesn’t. The evidence prior gave me plot-consistent expectations with how Ender would act, but he simply does not act upon those expectations. His character did go through changes, but not enough to completely alter his core beliefs. He simply does not act how he should act when given some very dire news.
Likewise, the political dealings of Valentine and Peter completely fizzle out into nothing, and some of my favorite parts of the book wound up going nowhere. Ender’s Game could have easily been another hundred or more pages because there were so many things to do with this particular plot thread, but the novel decided to do nothing with it. It was crushingly disappointing.
The true end, the last perhaps twenty or so pages, wound up being an exposition mess of unnecessary information that retroactively hurt previous parts of the book and put many plot-related elements into question. To explain it all would take more pages than anyone would care to read, and I don’t want to spoil what happens, but I was not pleased with how Ender’s Game saw me off.
Not. At. All.
And there’s the problem. Ender’s Game is a good book, perhaps a great book, until the end where it just fumbles so much. Subtext abounds, and this is easily a book that could be criticized through different literary lenses.
But the ending isn’t better, the ending is poor, and now I’m stuck wondering if I should recommend the novel. Most of it is good, great even, but the crucial part is not.
So, I shall ask you this: What do you value more, the journey or the destination? If you are a person who finds pure bliss in the journey with the destination as a mere excuse to adventure, then do pick this novel up. You’ll have a blast. If you are a person like me though, one who sees the destination as the reason for the journey, then I would hesitate.
The good news, should you pick up Ender’s Game, is that the book does not cliffhanger into its sequels. Orson Scott Card wrote a great many novels in this universe, but if you are not planning for a lengthy series, you can start and end with this one. I have heard the direct followup, The Speaker for the Dead, is quite good, but I’ve also heard some of the later books devolve into the absurd. I can’t speak for either of those things, and since Ender’s Game has an ending with closure, I won’t need to. I plan on stopping here, and it’s good to have that as an option.
I cannot outright say “No, don’t pick this up” for there are so many good things to be read and experienced, but I was really let down by the ending when so much else was so good.