Review: Children of the Fleet
I first learned the term “bottle episode” while watching “Community” (thank you, Abed). One episode of Season 2 takes place entirely in a locked room as the characters search for a missing pen. While the premise is absurd, trapping everyone in the same room allows for hilarity, as well as serious revelations about their relationships, to ensue. Not only are ‘bottle episodes’ cheap to shoot, relying on one set instead of several, they are also light on plot, allowing writers to spend more time focusing on character development. In his newest addition to the Enderverse, CHILDREN OF THE FLEET, Card immerses his readers once again in a world of precocious children, absent but watchful adults, and a life or death mission. While it’s not exactly a bottle episode, Card’s narrative shares a similar intense focus on depth, not breadth. By limiting himself to a relatively simple plot and using the already familiar setting of Battle Fleet School, Card can fully explore the emotional journey of Dabeet Ochoa.
Set in the aftermath of Ender’s victory in the Third Formic war, CHILDREN OF THE FLEET (Amazon) begins after Battle School has been converted to Fleet School, a place to train future leaders for humanity’s colonization efforts. Dabeet Ochoa is a preternaturally intelligent child who is convinced that he belongs in Fleet School, not stuck on Earth.
While Dabeet is highly intelligent, he nonetheless struggles to forge meaningful human relationships. More importantly, he doesn’t understand why he should desire human connection. Dabeet even views his mother, the only person he is close with, as an obstacle to his progression. Dabeet circumvents his mother and applies to Fleet School, confident that with scores even higher than Ender Wiggin’s (although, of course, not as high as the famed Julian Delphiki’s) that he is guaranteed admission.
Our old friend, Hyrum Graff, now the Minister of Colonization (MinCol), is less convinced, and bluntly informs Dabeet that he is not fit for the school. MinCol’s interest in Dabeet sparks the attention of another, less well-intentioned group, who kidnap Dabeet and threaten to kill his mother if he does not help them conduct a ‘raid’ on Fleet School to scare the International Fleet, a goal that Dabeet immediately suspects hides darker, ulterior motives.
Although Dabeet’s eventual placement in Fleet School is never really in doubt (the novel is titled CHILDREN OF THE FLEET, after all, not Children Whose Applications Were Summarily Rejected), what is in question is whether Dabeet will take responsibility for the plot he has helped set in motion, which could potentially result in the deaths of everyone at Battle School.
Despite the threat of death, this is not an action-packed story. Although the approaching threat to Fleet School and Dabeet’s mother give the narrative a forward momentum, Dabeet’s personal growth is the real focus here and his character development comes primarily through conversation and reflection. Card gives us breaks along the way, such as showing the reader new features of the battle room and having Dabeet learn some basic rules of space survival. Card is in his element here, as we watch children accomplish adult tasks, and we, as readers, get to learn along with them. These moments help the book feel adequately paced and entertaining, more so once Dabeet is in Fleet School.
The weakness of novel is also the very crux of the book–Dabeet’s journey from an unlikable, arrogant, self-unaware child into someone who has the potential to be a powerful leader. Unfortunately this means that for the first (almost half?) of the book, Dabeet is a very unlikable, difficult character and it can feel difficult to fully engage with his story. Of course, being a ‘relatable’ character is not a prerequisite for a great book–in fact, many novels rely on unlikable protagonists. However, when reading CHILDREN OF THE FLEET it’s difficult not to compare Dabeet to the protagonists of the first two series. Unlike Ender, whose innate compassion tempers his brilliance, or Bean, whose difficult life circumstances make his superiority more relatable, Dabeet has neither internal or external circumstances to help the reader connect to him. While Dabeet’s stiffness never entirely disappears, once he realizes that Graff’s challenge to “make use of the knowledge [he] has” includes respecting the expertise and humanity of others and taking ownership of the mistakes that he has made, Dabeet’s own development, as well the story’s, pick up nicely.
Card writes confidently; the development of exceptional children is certainly his wheelhouse and we see much of his characteristic style, including with plenty of his ‘blank white room’ dialogue at the beginning of chapters that lacks any type of dialogue tags. While I felt that these sections tended to run a little long (it is certainly more work on the reader’s part to follow unattributed dialogue), that might just be a personal preference.
As a final note, although it is a standalone novel, this is in no way meant to be an introduction to the world. There are too many worldbuilding assumptions and Card drops readers in the deep end, assuming that those who pick up this book have done their homework.
Although it took me a while to warm up to, I really enjoyed Dabeet’s story as well as being back in the Enderverse.
- Recommended Age: 10+
- Language: Mild swearing, almost entirely in battle school patois
- Violence: Mild peril; offscreen death
- Sex: None