By way of full disclosure, I've read eleven of Orson Scott Card's novels, including all books in the "Ender" series. Eleven books accounts for about one-third of the novels he has written, which I suppose marks me as a definite fan, but not one fanatical enough to have read everything yet.
Not only have I enjoyed the other books in the "Ender" series immensely, these books have truly changed me in identifiable, positive ways. My first reading of Ender's Game as a young person had an indelible effect on me, and a recent re-reading of it moved me in different, but equally powerful ways. Speaker for the Dead; Xenocide and Children of the Mind are very different from Ender's Game, but also very wonderful. I loved Ender's Shadow and felt emotionally caught up in Bean's story.
So, when I say that I liked Shadow of the Hegemon the least of the six (so far) books in this series, I'm not saying it's a bad book. It's an excellent novel, and I think nothing less of Card for having written it. I enjoyed reading it, could hardly put it down except for the demands of work, family, etc. But it just didn't have that much impact on me.
Most people reading this already know what happened in Ender's Game and Ender's Shadow. If you don't, I strongly suggest you read those two books before reading Shadow of the Hegemon. You can enjoy this novel on it's own, but your experience will be greatly enhanced having read the background events in those books. Actually, just reading Ender's Shadow is probably enough, because it tells the story of Bean, who is the main character in Hegemon, but I don't think anyone should miss out on reading Ender's Game. (Speaker for the Dead; Xenocide and Children of the Mind are completely unrelated to the events in Shadow of the Hegemon.)
Ender's Game and Ender's Shadow, the two parallel books that take place immediately before Shadow of the Hegemon, tell of a not-so-distant future in which insect-like aliens have already attacked Earth twice. Each time they were narrowly deflected by Earth defenses. Seventy years after the first attack, Earth has acquired starship technology from the defeated alien ships which it hopes will allow them to survive an expected third attack by the alien race. To fly Earth's fighters and lead battles, the International Fleet (I.F.) recruits and trains children from around the world who exhibit the brightest intellects and greatest potential for military leadership. Ender's Game and Ender's Shadow detail the childhood and Battle School training of Ender and Bean (Ender's right-hand man) and end at the end of the war with the aliens.
With the end of the alien threat, the nations of the Earth return immediately to the conflicts they had been engaged in before being united by a common enemy. Ender has left Earth permanently, becoming a colonist on a planet previously inhabited by the aliens. The other Battle School graduates who led Earth's forces to victory return to Earth immensely popular because of their role in saving humanity. They are still only young teenagers, yet they are the greatest, best-trained military minds on the planet. And in the opening chapters of Shadow of the Hegemon, they find themselves kidnapped to be used as pawns by nations in a sophisticated campaign of international conquest.
Among the kidnapped Battle Schoolers is Petra Arkanian, an Armenian tomboy who was the first older student that befriended Ender and recognized his innate skill for military tactics. Petra is one of the main characters in the novel, second in importance only to Bean, her former classmate. Bean was the only student from Ender's final command staff who was not kidnapped. This is because the one responsible for the kidnappings is Achilles, Bean's nemesis from before he went to Battle School. Achilles' hatred for Bean prompted him to bomb the home where Bean and his family were staying rather than trying to kidnap him, and Bean narrowly escaped these assassination attempts.
The novel follows Bean as he attempts to stay alive despite Achilles' attempts to kill him, while at the same time trying to rescue his friends from being held captive and forced to develop battle strategies for Achilles. Bean enlists the help of Peter Wiggin, who is Ender's older brother and, unknown to all but Bean and a few highly placed I.F. leaders, Locke, the highly-respected political commentator whose columns are widely read on the worldwide Net. Peter, as Locke, has carved out enormous influence on the world scene, and now desires to become the Hegemon, an office roughly analogous to head of the United Nations. But Peter wants to imbue the office with real power and use it to unite the world permanently and reshape it as he desires. With Peter's assistance, Bean is granted a highly placed position in the Thai military, and from there he attempts to prevent Achilles from taking over the world by manipulating various countries (including India, Pakistan, and China) into waging war against each other.
Shadow of the Hegemon is a masterpiece of military and political strategy. The strategic, political and psychological maneuvering displayed by the book's main characters Bean, Peter, Achilles and Petra are breathtakingly ingenious. But the characters, ideas and other emotionally potent content that made the other books so unforgettable get short shrift here. I found myself impressed by the intellect of the author and his characters, but I didn't really connect with them.
After all the strategy, what time was left over for the characters was split between fairly evenly between three different characters (Bean, Achilles, and Petra), with considerable attention given to Peter, Sister Carlotta and Suriyawong as well. So, while main characters such as Ender and Bean (or Wang Mu) were no less brilliant in the other novels, it was easier to care about them and relate to them because the novels stayed closer to their stories and revealed more of what made them tick.
I believe there will be many people for whom Shadow of the Hegemon is a favorite in the series. These are people who are enthusiastic fans of military/political fiction. There are probably many people who will like this volume better than the heavily philosophical Xenocide and Children of the Mind. So I may not be the "perfect reader" for Hegemon: I have nothing against military and political strategy as literary subjects, but nor do I have a particular interest in these topics.
Although I found it less compelling than its predecessors, Shadow of the Hegemon was nevertheless full of highlights for me. Bean's character experienced relatively little development, but Petra really came alive. Hers was the best-written character in the novel, full of believable complexity as she faced the novel's most mentally and psychologically demanding situations. Petra's scene with an ill-fated Russian psychologist, in which she gains the upper hand by dismantling his profession is particularly enjoyable. This is a worthy addition to science fiction's long tradition of dismissing Freudianism and related pseudo-sciences. (Calling him a witch doctor is one of Petra's many delightful observations.) The scene in which Achilles and Petra face off against each other in a depressurized airplane was thrilling and cinematic, and was one of the most memorable individual scenes I've read in a Card novel.
Hegemon is also notable for its extended use of Thai characters and Thailand as a setting. Having lived in Thailand, I thought Card's portrayal of this land and its people was very accurate and always interesting. I would love to see Card return to this distinctive culture, perhaps in a historical novel or alternative history.
Finally, one of my favorite aspects of this novel was the brief but illuminating scenes with Ender's parents, particularly his mother. The ethnic/religious background of this character is only mentioned in passing in other books in the series. But this woman's strength and beliefs are very apparent here during her conversation with Bean. Shadow of the Hegemon clears up many questions lingering from previous books, such as the nature of the repression experienced by Ender's family, and how two apparently witless parents could have been the parents of three genius children. (Hint: The parents of Ender, Peter, and Valentine aren't as witless as their children may have thought.)
One thing you can definitely say about Shadow of the Hegemon, it's very different from the other books in the series, and very different from anything Card has written before. This book is an all-out, Earth-bound military-and-political strategy novel. The novel seems like something Card has wanted to write for a long time: a novel about how to take over the world. In the book's afterword Card describes how as a child he would spend long hours with a globe contemplating just this topic. (Well, who doesn't?) Shadow of the Hegemon is Card's wish-fulfillment.
I found the process by which Achilles gained power and re-drew the world map absolutely fascinating. Also, the novel relieved me, at least temporarily, of an inexplicably disappointing notion I'd had that the era of conquest was over and done with in the modern world. Card's novel made me believe that a bold campaign of conquest, reminiscent of Alexander or Napoleon, could happen even in modern times. Yet, the whole exercise left me, as a reader, feeling emotionally empty. Maybe that just means taking over the world wouldn't really make me happy.
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