Review: Hidden Empire
I read and loved, with certain reservations, Orson Scott Card’s EMPIRE (Amazon). So when I found out there was a sequel pending for imminent release I was excited to see how the franchise was handled.
If you haven’t read EMPIRE, here’s a quick rundown. The possibility of a civil war, in America today, becomes very real when the President and all his staff are assassinated. Reuben and Cole become pawns in a conspiracy to an American revolution. The ending leaves us with a Princeton professor leading both the Democratic and Republican parties, and taking the office of the President with more than just a few suspicious events to those with a keen eye (Read: The main characters) in his resume.
HIDDEN EMPIRE (Amazon) picks up three years after EMPIRE left off, with more of the exploits of Captain Cole, Cessy Malich, Averell Torrent and Reuben’s jeesh. The jacket of the book talks about President Torrent, and how Cessy and Cole are the only ones who can bring his machinations to light. The story was something of a surprise. After EMPIRE ended, and after reading the book jacket, it was obvious what the plot of this sequel would be, or so I thought. In the opening chapter of this book that all changed when the readers are exposed to Africa and a new epidemic of civilization-crushing proportions.
Wait. What about Torrent? Exactly. What about him? Tracking down evidence of his dangerous ambitions and the means he uses to certain ends is only a very small part of the plot. The majority is spent in Africa dealing with the outbreak of the deadly virus, and the government there.
That said, I have to admit I admire Card for his strict adherence to the story he chose and the necessity of the plot, no matter how painful. Now, I don’t mean painful in the way of Dan Brown or the Terrys. I mean painful in the way of when Wash dies in the movie Serenity (seriously, the statute of limitations on this movie is long past). There were some moments that were pretty wrenching, and perfectly done.
While Card adheres to the story wonderfully, he breaks convention in other ways. For example, it is common knowledge that thrillers are very character light (If you didn’t know this before, you’re officially part of the “In-the-know” group. Welcome). However, Card delivers a political thriller that, while not character dense, has some decent progression in that regard.
There is an excellent use of moral viewpoints from the characters. Meaning there isn’t a lot of gray area here, and a lot of very defined black and white, but everyone’s view on what is black and white is different. It was very cool to see an interesting perspective like this in a day when gray morality is king. The main characters think what they do is good, and know that what the antagonists do is fueled by their reasoning that they, themselves, are good.
A couple gripes I had about the book were fairly large and irritated me all the way through, and some of them have been the criticisms that Card always gets, and is probably used to.
The main one is: Why is it so impossible for Card to write a believable viewpoint for a child. OK impossible may be the wrong word–Chinma could very well be accurate–but the rest of the kids drive me crazy. In what world can a 10 year old debate politics with her Advisor-to-the-President mother, and come out ahead? In what world can a 10 year old comment on the particulars of life in Africa with irony and sarcasm? Seriously Card? Every single one of Cessy Malich’s five children border on genius. They make Cessy, who is supposed to be brilliant, look foolish a number of times. I find it interesting that all these years after Ender we are still subject to Card’s inability to write the viewpoint of children. I think that Card knew he needed to have Cessy show her thoughts and feelings through dialog, and there was no one to fit that role, so he forced the kids into that shape. They swing back and forth between irritatingly childish and political masterminds. This was seriously disappointing. It wasn’t until the end when the story left the younger kids and focused on Mark and Chinma that it became believable.
Speaking of the dialog with Cessy. The next biggest complaint was the fact that she starts talking to Chinma (who is a native African), in English, which is his fourth language by the way. No big problem here, until you actually see the implementation. We are shown multiple times Chinma’s inability to speak English very well, such as not knowing simple words, like fever. Yet Cessy talks to him about infanticide, and abortion, and gives detailed history lessons of Christian behavior, and while he may not agree with what she is saying, he certainly understands it. Get a hold of your dialog Card, so I can retain hold on my sanity! This is just sloppy.
Oh yeah. So is messing up the name of one of the pivotal characters in the first book. Her name is DeeNee, Card, not DeeDee. This kind of mistake doesn’t speak well for the editing done for this book. It only happens once, but was noticeable enough that I pulled EMPIRE off my shelf to make sure I wasn’t mistaken.
The last big issue I had with the book was that writers choose their words carefully, and Card has included enough very specific phrases that are acerbic enough to make sure this novel, a thriller, remains politically charged, and only for that reason it would seem.
There was one final part of the novel that rubbed the wrong way. It was the obligatory “Africa-scenes”. I get why Card set the majority of the story in Africa (though I think it would have been interesting to be daring and set it elsewhere), because it created all sorts of moral and political dilemmas. I also get why he included the “Africa-scenes”, which include tossing an infant in the air to use as target practice with an automatic rifle, the village raid complete with rape (though, this is never actually happens on screen), etc, but I also wonder if they were needed.
The book is an extremely quick read, about three hours worth. When I put the book down I had, at the same time, a desire for more about Torrent and his political machinations, and a feeling of satisfaction for what the book did include. (Conflicted! Such drama!)
Will you like the book?
If you’re a fan of Card, this is fairly standard fare for him, so you will know what to expect. If you are a fan you will like this book. It’s basically Tom Clancy-Lite, with better, and more interesting characters and resolution. If you like the political thriller genre, chances are you will be entertained.
Card’s website is here, go check it out, and give him props for a, despite it’s flaws, really good book.