Recommendation: A really great look into the character Bean from Card’s previous hit Ender’s Game, but a book that struggles to stand on its own. If you’ve read and enjoyed Ender’s Game then you’ll probably like this book as well, but it’s best read as a companion piece.
Most of you have probably read or at least heard about Ender’s Game, Orson Scott Card’s epic middle grade novel following the young boy Ender as he is groomed to be a general (and potential savior) in Earth’s space army. And, actually, if you haven’t heard of it yet, you’re sure to in the next couple months as a big time film based on the book is coming out in November. It’s a great book that I am confident will be marred by a sub-par movie not to mention the author’s obnoxious view on gay marriage.
But, enough about that book, on to Ender’s Shadow. One of Ender’s few friends and supporters throughout his saga is a smaller kid called Bean. Although Bean is slightly smarter than Ender, his small stature, quiet nature, and natural introversion place him just below Ender in the eyes of the Battle School leaders. So, as Ender is propelled higher in the ranks of the army, Bean is kept close by to be the Robin to Ender’s Batman (but, we’re talking Damian Wayne-awesome-version of Robin, not lame Dick Grayson).
Bean starts his life in the slums, fighting for every scrap of food and constantly on the verge of starvation. He uses his smarts to his advantage and creates an entire social structure that allows his survival. Eventually, his savvy is noticed by the Battle School recruiters and he is pushed forward into the process. I don’t want to give anything away about either book, so I’ll stop the synopsis there.
While the main plot is basically exactly what you’d expect, there is a subplot parceled out in this book that is both distracting and annoying. It involves the possibility that Bean was grown in a test tube from the DNA of a terrorist but actually maybe not a terrorist but then he isn’t the DNA provider anyways maybe it’s this normal guy or that other family, whatever. The whole thing is tangential and serves almost no purpose as Bean’s interest in his origins are more of a curiosity than a focused, driving concern. It feels like this part of the story was shoved into this book in an attempt to make it stand up on its own, but it just doesn’t work. It’s too complicated and too far away from the main action.
Though the plot has its struggles, the audio voice-over is fantastic. The narrator’s natural voice is smooth and easy on the ears, and even his shifts to match dialogue to different characters never result in any catastrophes like what happened on the Room audio book. I did have a little trouble hearing the narration, but I’m pretty sure that was just a result of my own faulty equipment, nothing wrong with the actual audio files.
In the end, your enjoyment of this title is largely going to come down to whether you’ve read Ender’s Game. If you’re familiar with the world introduced in that classic, then you’ll be able to ignore the sideshow about Bean’s family and add some extra depth to the story you already know. But, without that background, this is going to feel like a roaming, thinly made sci-fi mistake.