Earth Afire is the second book in a prequel trilogy to Ender’s Game. The fact that, in the media of film and literature, this has become a common practice is perhaps not something I will delve into too deeply here, though I will feature some of the flaws of this structure. Is this book a worthy successor to Earth Unaware? Is it a worthy predecessor to Ender’s Game?
Right off the bat I almost put this book down. I need to get this clear, not for readers, but for authors. And for publishers. And for agents. Humanity has worked a long, hard time to get to where it’s been. We’ve gotten through a lot of prejudices and really terrible things as a result of bigotry. I’m not going to go so far as to break Godwin’s Law, but what I am going to say is that in this day and age, seeing an image of Earth’s future in which a man who even claims to run a respectable image can be shocked that a woman runs an equally respectable business is enough to convince me that this is not a future I want to read about. The idea that bigotries that are gasping their dying breaths in the 21st century will be revived 100 years ago makes looking to the future lose a lot of its appeal.
This is the low point of the book, and I’m grateful, because usually when you start counting low points, you end up with a lot of them. There is the fact that this vision of the future includes a Great Britain that is still fond of using archaic racial derogatories, but that’s a throwaway line in monologue that still makes sense if you remove it, and has a bit of purpose, so I can forgive that to an extent. Similarly, we get a bit about a woman who had a role in Earth Unaware and is largely irrelevant in Earth Afire, making a speech at the end about how the part of her that is a mother, and a sister, a wife is in favor of taking the risk. This would have a bit of meaning if there was anything other than her theoretical vagina (theoretical because we don’t actually see it, of course) to state that she is any of those things. It would be a bit more meaningful if any of those things actually informed her character.
Beyond those things, I would argue that Earth Afire is better than its predecessor. It doesn’t have the high points that Earth Unaware had, but if its low points were identical, I probably wouldn’t be looking forward to Earth Awakens. And I am, so if you want the very short version, I did enjoy Earth Afire once I got past the early bits. It’s still plagued by the occasional irrelevant storyline, but where in the first book it was the unrelated plot that held my interest the best, here it’s a story that I barely have interest in. Since this is a plot that ties in to the first book, it can be maintained that a plot in Book Three requires it. I don’t hold to that mentality myself, but I can see an editor pushing for its inclusion here.
More importantly, we get our main plotlines about Mazer Rackham in China - one that has stakes, action and more grounded emotional drama all in sufficient doses - and that of Victor, which pays off for the effort that was put into setting the plot up. Through Victor and Imala’s dealings with various individuals in Juke Limited, we see that Victor really isn’t emotionally mature enough to have the kind of love that his family was concerned about his developing, furthering his innocence. It doesn’t particularly further his likability, though. Still, you have to admire the creativity that is involved in the solutions he develops to problems.
Creativity is largely the name to the game. The MOPs, despite all of their focus on skill, aggressiveness and charisma, value creative solutions to problems higher than anything else. Creativity and insight seem to be the name of the game here: Ender was selected because of the possibility for new tactics created by the minds of children, and here you see the birth of that concept. Bingwen is clearly, if not a proto-Ender, the inspiration for Battle School, and I’m curious to see how that’s going to go. Ultimately, I feel like the trilogy is going to come down to a statement that creativity and the refusal to lie down and die beats intelligence, resources and a willingness to die for the greater good, but it’s too early to tell as the individual books are not ready to stand definitively and make a statement.
That is probably the biggest weakness of these books, but unfortunately it’s not one that surprises me. Novels, movies and comic issues that have a definitive beginning, middle, end and stance are getting more and more rare, but with any luck the greater whole of the Formic Wars will be greater for it.
I’ve done a lot more criticizing this book than praising it, but that’s par for the course of the way I read: the book has nothing spectacular, but a lot of average things. Bingwen is good, but it’s good in a way that we’ve seen Card do before. Mazer is good, but we’re still waiting for the epic moment of triumph that hangs like a shadow over everything he does. Wit is cool, but it feels like we’re waiting for his true purpose that is yet to come. Ditto with many of the other plots. This book, for instance, ends with one minor victory, two cliffhangers, and the completion of a bridging story that gives no indication of what is yet to come. This may be a result of the initial comic format, or it might have been a conscious decision in outlining the trilogy, but it still results in a distinct lack of shining moments on a short term basis.
Yet, as I stated, I do recommend Earth Afire, and I do want to read Earth Awakens. It just feels like a part of a whole, something that doesn’t have all of the elements of the story yet. There is a character arc, but it has the odor of something that is not yet completed. Actions are taken with full awareness of the consequences, but we have yet to see them. Plans are undertaken with hopes of success and fears of failure, but we have yet to see the dangers, and the chances for each. Therefore, the book is not yet able to relay the gravity of these scenes, so it is difficult as yet to truly praise them.