Why Pathfinder lost its way – book review

February 11, 2012 · All Reviews, Science Fiction 

★★ Orson Scott Card’s books vary enormously in quality- when he’s good he’s genius; tying intricate plotting with fascinating inner monologues, cumulative story development, and a real sense of threat (a la Pastwatch, early Alvin Maker, early Ender and Bean), but when he’s bad he’s atrocious; padding his ‘stories’ with bantery filler, gross over-explanation, and a distasteful kind of sexualized potty humour. Ugh.

His latest fantasy/sf novel ‘Pathfinder‘ falls into both camps, though not in equal measure. In short, it was disappointing.

Pathfinder tells the story of Rigg, a boy with the ability to see the paths of all living things backwards through time, kind of like the silver slug trails in Donnie Darko. This premise is certainly the most interesting part of the book. Everything afterwards is basically a by-the-numbers quest shot through with that funky premise as dustings of spice.

The quest is a hunt for Rig’s real parents. His father dies early (after hanging around long enough to show the annoying one-upmanship relationship he has with Rigg where they’re both constantly arguing over the teeniest of logical mistakes, trying to catch the other out) and gives him some cryptic ‘carroty’ spiel about hunting down his real family. For an unconnected reason (whomping great plot-‘stick’) at the same time Rigg gets kicked out of his village. He hits the road with some doofus friend in tow- who just so happens to have the ability to slow time. Put his skill with Rigg’s, and hey presto, Rigg can travel in time. This is either fascinating to you, or you’re already groaning with the inevitable Back To The Future 2 time-travel logic retreads that are coming.

And yes, they come. Thick and fast and thick, Card explains his mechanics of time travel. If I go back in time and steal money from myself, do I have it now, or does future me have it, or does it just disappear? And who cares? a

Rigg uses this new-found skill to go steal some ancient merchant’s dagger. Big whoop. Then he doesn’t use it again for anything useful for basically the rest of the book.

So now I’ll get critical. In fact, I’ll get medieval. Because once you’ve given a hero this kind of superpower, there’s no story left to tell unless you come up with a super-villain with an equal or greater power, and the wit to use it. Which Card does not do. Rather, he has Rigg bumble along like a bit of a fortuitous prick- early on stumbling into some swarthy dude who basically adopts him for the book’s duration and acts as a personal bodyguard and stand-in father.

So let’s recount the stakes and the motivation here. Rigg is curious about his mom and sister- this is the whole of his motivation. Nothing is at risk, nothing at stake, his desire to see them is not even that burning because he’s never seen them before. The only fire at his butt is that he can’t go back to his father’s village, but let’s be honest- who wants to go back to that hole in the ground anyway. So he’s basically on gentle cruise control. Add to that his mega-superpower, and the stand-in father along to protect him, and the fact that his real father had previously trained him to speak in 50 different accents and to know the ways of the world better than everyone, and I was left floundering. What was I supposed to care about? I saw no one remotely capable of hurting Rigg. He was like Peter in the (godawful) TV show Heroes, that skinny drawl-mouthed punk with the power to absorb all powers. The only way he could get hurt is if he did something utterly stupid and ridiculous to let himself be hurt.

Which Rigg does. Numerous times.

This was the novel’s major flaw. Underneath all the fancy time travel, underneath the helixing companion tale (told briefly at the start of every chapter – more in a minute), Rigg is at once too damn good and also too damn stupid. The lute in Scott Card’s hands is hopelessly out of tune, some strings too tight and others too slack, but still he keeps on strumming it anyway- though the sound that comes out is a discordant bloody mess.

Argh. Yes, this is exactly it. The very frame of the story is off. The world is supposed to be terrifying and scary, but in the first tavern Rigg and his doofus friend find themselves, the big dude sweeps in to rescue them. I would have MUCH preferred it if he’d robbed them. If Rigg and doofus had to escape with barely their lives and figure things out for themselves, that would have raised the stakes hugely and put real limits on their power. Instead, the addition of this guy makes everything easy.

So with this troupe Rigg goes to the city. He is nominally held prisoner by his scheming mom, and meets his sister who has another weird skill- but rapidly he uses his powers to escape in and out of house arrest, without detection. He just wanders in and out of the ‘villain’s’ clutches like he was popping out for pizza. He’s ridiculously over-powered, there is no sense of tension or threat, but Card keeps on banging away at that lute.

And then the denouement. Escape, with all his buddies to an impossible wall surrounding the world he knows, which in fact is just one of 13 partitions dividing the world. But they are being chased! Oh nos! Regular humans on regular horses are chasing time-travelling Rigg, what on earth will he do?

He doesn’t time travel. This is the most ridiculous part, and where Card just pissed me off. Lazy! If he time-traveled back a week, where would the pursuit go? It would be gone! It would still be watching over him in his house-arrest ‘prison’! Card makes some long-winded attempt to explain why this ‘wouldn’t work’, but it’s an utter BS attempt to keep us engaged in the tension, which results in every bit of that ‘tension’ being totally false. Like the end of (the godawful) Heroes where ALL the good guys PLUS Peter fight Sylar. What worry did any of us have that they were going to lose? Or even get hurt?

So with Pathfinder. I was never scared for Rigg, never even concerned, because at all times he had a batch of magic bullets in his pocket. It was easy, but still he had to keep stuffing it up- in order for there to be a story.

Other reviewers have compared this kid to Ender. Well, yeah there’s that. But Ender would never have squandered his skill the way this kid does. He would have kicked ass and been done with it.

There are other elements at play here- most notably the sf back-story to explain the world-partitions and Rigg’s funky skill- which is pretty good- with cool ideas on evolution and dimension-jumping skillz. But the book as a whole doesn’t stand up. It’s all out of whack, out of alignment, and it plays like a de-tuned radio.

I want to yell- “Put on your man pants, Card!” Give us some damn stakes, give the hero a challenge, and stop expecting us to fall over ourselves for precocious kids. Raise the stakes, make life truly impossible for them, then have them rise to the occasion- like you did with early Ender and Alvin. Let’s get back to that.

To read more and how to fix it (ahtfi) story articles- go here.

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Comments:
36 Responses to “Why Pathfinder lost its way – book review
  1. Chromesthesia says:

    You left out OSC taking over characters and using them to lecture about marriage and babies. He could NOT go one book without a character ranting about marriage and babies. AUGH.
    I hate this book. I just can’t get through it. It’s just to awful!

    • MJG says:

      Yeah, he does that doesn’t he? Agreed that it is very annoying. At least though the characters are not spouting off about Joseph Smith and the angel Moroni- for that we can be thankful.

    • Dannyboy says:

      You are all a bunch of retards. Pathfinder is an exquisite book (and so is ruins). It is geniusly written and exquisitely plotted. It is an excellent book and series.

      • Dustyn clark says:

        Thank you pathfinder and ruins are amazing and if he dont write a third one soon ill start killin jk but love those books i couldnt put it down

  2. Kyle says:

    Oh please, spare me.

    Though I agree to some degree on your interpretation of this book, your childish plug for your own book at the end took away every bit of ethos you might have had in my mind. You simply wanted to tear down one of the most famous writers of this genre, thinking you could somehow replace him at the top. Well here’s one reader you will never get to read your copycat book.

    • MJG says:

      Ouch.

      I don’t agree Kyle that the plug was childish. Maybe it sounded a bit arrogant? Probably that was tongue-in-cheek, but obviously failed to amuse you, certainly failed to entice you. As a result, plug is not doing it’s job, so is gone.

      As for replacing OSC at the top, god, I wish.

      • E says:

        Honestly, you a a typical American- undereducated and overopinionated. From your plot summary, it is clear that you did not even read the book (and if you did, your reading skills suck). And your bid to advertise your book is just a way to pawn off a piece of cheap crap onto those who share your American complex. For those of is who do not want their time wasted by fools such as yourself, close your mouth and go shit yourself.

  3. Jamir says:

    Personally, I like this book. I’m guessing all of you are adults still reading children’s books. For the targeted age group. Middle School, this is an amazing book. My whole class enjoyed it.

    • MJG says:

      I don’t see anywhere on the book that it’s aimed at middle school kids. Nor was it sectioned in the bookstore with YA or some such. Nor do any of Card’s previous books, certainly the main ones, target only or even primarily children of that age. So, hmm. I think I’m a valid audience, so my opinion is valid too.

      • Dillon says:

        why are you such d***, really makes me want to read your book hah, I loved this book, the first book i ever read that i couldn’t put down, the second being enders game. if this book can keep men entertained throughout then to me that makes it a good book.

    • Kylar says:

      I agree this book was interesting, so was the second one it was captivating with some crude humour that appeals to teenagers my age I loved this book though I agree that OSC could have spent less time describing some things but I think this book was engaging and exciting

  4. Matthew says:

    I think these points are correct but it still had some interesting things that you thought about. For example the first city he comes too and almost leads him to where they are and what would happen if they don’t stop it

  5. Eli says:

    Sometimes Card does leave little mistakes around but it’s not a perfect book and he’s not a perfect author, his attempts at humor fall short and end up being repetitive. There is a lot that gets explained in the second book and a lot that he goes into further detail on. Your whole review seemed childish and biased to me. Calling Umbos “doofus” shows right away that your intention is not to review but to rather give a bad review for your own cause (whether that be to promote your own book or just to interest people). Before you say that it doesn’t matter if it was explained in the next book, I still loved the first enough for me to go and get the second as soon as I could. You also don’t need a threat to make a story good. This isn’t a cheap thriller or action story where you need to beat the bad guy. It goes much deeper than that but I could see how you missed that as you couldn’t even get the amount of partitions right (a very important detail).

    • MJG says:

      Childish? Another ouch. I thought I reasoned and explained at a pretty adult level. Perhaps you say so because I said ‘doofus’? It is a kid-like insult, sure, but appropriate for Umbo, who was a kid-like doofus. I didn’t put that to ‘promote my own book’, however that might work. Nor was it to hook people (do a lot of people do google searches for ‘Umbo is a doofus’? Hmm). Umbo just really annoyed me- both he and Rigg.

      As for what you say about me wanting a ‘cheap thriller’, do you really think I want that when I loved early Ender, early Alvin, Bean, etc? Of course I do not. But I do want a character who must struggle. All of those others struggled, despite their gifts. In my view, Rigg had everything handed to him on a silver platter, and that was my main problem. Respond to that, please. Tell me where he struggled.

      As for number of partitions, it’s not really important to my review, is it?

  6. Matt says:

    I strongly disagree with your review….this is the 5th Card book I have read and as with the others he creates a great story, which is well researched and then adds the crucial element of his incredible imagination.

    The book creates 5 strong characters, all required to achieve the goal, which changes as the book goes on and more information is at hand.

    Maybe it is just too complex for you ;-) haha I don’t know – but for those that like something way off the beaten track, this is a great read, and the follow up book (Ruins) is excellent too

    • MJG says:

      Five strong characters, I don’t think I’ll agree with that. Rigg is strong in the sense that he’s overpowered. Ram is strong in the sense that he’s interesting. And, who else?

      About complexity, I’ll agree there is some complex stuff with the intertwining sci-fi story, which was ambitious by Card and I liked. The time travel is complex too, if a bit dull to labour through- especially when it’s never particularly important in the story.

      I’m just glad you didn’t call me childish…

  7. Val says:

    While Pathfinder isn’t Card’s strongest work, I thought it was an interesting read. According to ARBookfind Pathfinder is a 6th grade level read while Ender’s Game is a 5th grade level read. As an adult reading the book it did feel a little fluffy, which is to be expected when I checked it out of the young adult reading section in the library. However, I can imagine having LOVED the book if I had read it in middle school, the same way I fell in love with Ender’s Game at that age. While the key characters do seem to have a quick fix to all of their problems easily at hand, the tension is created by their lack of understanding of their own abilities and the culminating effects of combining their own abilities. These kids aren’t the super genius kids we meet in Ender’s Game. With the exception of Rigg, they seem somewhat normal – which is why young readers can place themselves within the read and feel the excitement of the adventure. Rigg as a character is intended to be the exception – don’t most stories have an exception? Why do people who hate each other end up getting together at the end of sappy movies? They are the exceptions. So, you don’t worry about Rigg being in danger, you are uber-confident that he’ll pull it all off in the end. I thought he had great emotional complexity for a young adult read. Card writes these kids with a reasoning ability that inspires his young readers to reason at a higher level and expect more maturity from their own age group. The adult-child relationships are equally thought provoking and confidence building for young readers. Why shouldn’t card address marriage, relationships, abuse or politics in his writing? What book doesn’t? Books for young adults are intended to get them thinking about these things. Who cares if you agree with what he’s writing? Isn’t that the fun of the read?

    This might not have been his strongest work but it was still an interesting read. It certainly wasn’t an epic fail. I look forward to my kids reading this one as they get older and watching the world of science fiction become more of a possibility – not because they can travel through time or see paths – but because they contain underdeveloped potential to become something incredible – they can be the superheroes of our time. I appreciate Card’s contribution to the optimism of our youth.

    • MJG says:

      I’m all for the reasoning ability Card shows his child characters to have. I’ve loved it in various of his other books, like Ender and the early Alvin Maker. And I’ll not argue that kids may love this book- though I think they’d still be able to distinguish that the ones I mentioned are ‘better’.

      Seems you don’t really dispute my main problem with the book, that Rigg never really faces any very difficult problems. He just cruises, because he’s been so well prepared. To me, facing and overcoming problems is very important in a story. I felt robbed at the end, because there was little that presented a real challenge, perhaps except the wall.

      Now I think of this book as a kind of extended flashback, origin story for Rigg. Presumably Card did too, and just wanted to get onto the next book, where he could amp up the challenge. Though from what I’ve heard, the next book is largely angsty trouble amongst the group. I dislike Card’s written angst, ends up being whiny and weird, so perhaps the second book is also a setup for later books to come.

  8. Leo Schuster says:

    I must say that you missed the entire point of the book and yes there is an enemy in the book its just noy revealed in the first book in the series. You really need to read the book again with a bit more of an open mind.

    • MJG says:

      “there is an enemy in the book its just noy revealed in the first book in the series”

      Forgive me- but how does that comprise there being an enemy in the first book? It’s in a later book, surely. And I won’t be reading it again. Ender’s Game and Shadow, many times sure. Not this one.

  9. Bob says:

    How about using some blog time to point readers to something you actually DO like. Take an opportunity when you have an audience to actually recommend a work instead of just trashing things you don’t care for.

  10. Batman says:

    I think that you missed the point of the book. You are thinking in a shallow and childish (I say that beacuse it annoys you) manner. The strugggles of Pathfinder and Ruins are rarely physical, but the mental struggles of the group working together. Rigg is susposed to be prepared, for he is the leader of the pack, the path (See what I did there? Path?) to victory. You seem to have expected a certain book, and not been given it. Because of this, you found it not to have any of the good points you were expecting. You didn’t have an open mind, and so had a rushed and biased review. If you write for the general populous, then don’t be a simple-minded jerk. I also find your incredibly defensive responses fascinating, as they show a low self esteem and a need to feel superior around others.

    • MJG says:

      It doesn’t annoy me. It’s sad though that you’re trying to annoy me- why, because we disagree about a book? Come on. And the stuff about being defensive, and a jerk, too- I’m just not interested in your personal attacks.

      About being closed-minded, or expecting a certain kind of book- sure, who doesn’t. I wanted it to be good. I wanted threats to be more threatening, and for the hero to have to do something that was genuinely difficult to do. I didn’t want a cake-walk, which is what it was.

      If you want to discuss the book, instead of trolling about self-esteem and what not, discuss that. That’s what I said about the book. You haven’t engaged with it at all.

      • Mo Mo says:

        i agree with you we do expect a good book… a book that we can sink our teeth into and actually read… for some (and me) pathfinder was an amazing book that i had to read a good few times to get it all and for others it wasn’t that great of a book…. all and all i likes the Si-fi and time travel parts Card put into the book…. great book

  11. Dave says:

    Look I don’t want to trash talk you because honestly it’s just your opinion and I don’t care to much. But I do care enough to put in my own two cents. Pretty much I liked the book. I understand that there was no antagonist but I think Card explaining a ton of weird time travel theories and interactions between interesting created characters made a good book. As for the chase scene, I don’t really remember it too well but I’ll just take your word for it when you say Rigg could’ve jumped back. But that’s also what you were saying the book needed; a sense of danger, and Card did his best to try and mask that behind a wall of fake physics. But a lot of people missed that, that doesn’t make it OK, but I would never had considered it a big deal anyway. Realisticly, I was fine with the book despite the few flaws.

    • MJG says:

      Thanks for the healthy attitude towards sharing opinions Dave. It’s great you liked the book, and stopped by to comment here. If I think back, I did like the stuff with Ram- the ideas were cool. I suppose I just hold Card to a standard which, for me, this book did not reach.

  12. Marc says:

    Just finished reading the second book and found this review searching for dates on the 3rd. While I can somewhat agree with your assessment, I think you’ve blown it a bit further out of proportion than it needed to be. Overall the book was a lot of fun, had some great concepts in it, and kept me interested through and passed the 2nd book to eagerly anticipate book #3. Reading the responses of others and seeing your subsequent responses to them, I’m beginning to think that you got too caught up in expectation and missed out on the struggles that these “Overpowered” or whiny (Doofus-y?) characters were going though. I’ll admit I’m a sucker for time-travel stories (For better or worse… You know what I’m talking about) and this book was all about the theoretical consequences that such an ability might present, especially when handed to a small group of untrained, inexperienced, moody teenagers, as well as the moral questions that arise from such use (Card loves those moral quandaries, doesn’t he?).

    Rigg’s personal struggles stem from the fact that he’s only 13 and has had not only a massively powerful ability handed to him (Though he struggles to understand it and doesn’t master it until the end of book 2) but also extremely advanced training at the hands of his mysterious “Father” in culture, politics, science, and economics. This puts him into the position of leader that he may be ready for on an academic level, but certainly not an emotional one. Then there’s “Doofus” Umbo, who’s just a country bumpkin with limited education and suffers from low self-esteem and an inferiority complex partially brought on by child abuse and having to hang around with this other kid who’s younger than him but is infinitely better equipped to handle the real world. Finally you end up with Riggs sister, Param, who’s had all the negatives of being both a sheltered little princess as well as a broken/humiliated prisoner. The nemesis of book one doesn’t need to take the form of a person or outside threat, these kids need to learn to live with themselves and their powers, as well as each-other. *shrug* I would encourage you to give the book and its sequel another chance. Though I suspect you’ll rage about the mice in book 2 as a blatant ripoff of another prominent sci-fi writer! ;)

    • MJG says:

      Fair enough, and yeah it’s possible I might change my view somewhat if I were to read it again. Perhaps I’ll give the second a chance, though I read in reviews it was largely inter-group squabbling and insecurity, something which I do not enjoy when Card gets indulgent with.

      Thanks for sharing your clearly considered opinion, Marc.

  13. ed says:

    It was very clear that the reviewer did not read this book or at least read the first couple of chapters. Pathfinder was is am awesome book. And then I scrolled down the bottom and saw the ad for your book. Your just trying to ride OSC curtails.

    • MJG says:

      Wrong. And the ads for my books are on every page of my site, clearly after the content- pretty standard for any author I’d say.

  14. nobody says:

    I agree with MJG; This was not by favorite book. However, I do think that there was conflict.
    Firstly, there was inner conflict. How would you feel if you never knew who your true family was? How would you feel if your own “long lost” mother tried to kill you? Not to mention the fact the Rigg is still young, as well as Umbo. Other instances of inner conflict is of power and trust. Umbo is constantly annoyed that he was not born into a higher rank in society, and does not want to be bossed around by Rigg.
    Another conflict is Man VS Unknown. What is beyond the wallfold? Why did the other guy who crossed it die? Rigg is taking his chances- also a type of conflict.
    When doing book reports, the trick is to point out quotes from the book, and let them mostly speak for themselves, not to interpret why the book is terrible for us. That way it sounds more like a fair analysis of the book.

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