The Lost Gate (Mithermages, Book 1) by Orson Scott Card

I went into this book looking for a fantasy novel that was not young adult. I also went into it knowing that Card has a reputation for being an amazing genre writer. Unfortunately, I was disappointed.

To be fair, some of this disappointment was due to a misunderstanding on my part. When I looked at the catalog at the Stafford library, The Lost Gate was categorized as “adult fiction.” It is most decidedly young adult, and intentionally so. Therefore, my disappointment on that front is not Card’s fault. The quality of the writing, despite his reputation, is.

The Lost Gate follows Danny North, a gatemage in the unforgiving Mittlegard, as he flees his murderous Family of fallen god mages and tries to learn to be a better mage, all the while being (for lack of a better phrase) a little shit. Simultaneously, the story follows a mysterious gatemage named Wad through the kingdom of Iceway. The concept and the magical system in place are actually quite interesting, and Card’s world-building and attention to detail are phenomenal. But even though I managed to finish reading the book (fairly quickly, too), I could not bring myself to enjoy it.

For one thing, I can’t stand Danny North. Now, I understand why he is such a nuisance, and it’s completely reasonable for him to be this way. He’s a know-it-all and a trickster, which Card repeatedly tells us is common of all gatemages (despite the fact that there are two other gatemages in the book who don’t act like this). He also has a very nasty, uncaring attitude about the world, which is understandable considering he’s a teenage boy and he’s had to go through his share of hardships. I absolutely understand Danny as a character, but I can’t tolerate his lack of character growth or my dragged-out relationship with him as the limited-perspective protagonist. He is constantly seen making the same mistakes, not bothering to change his attitude toward it. But then, I’m not a teenage boy, so maybe I just don’t get it.

Whether or not I can forgive Danny for being a bratty teenager, I can’t forgive the clumsy writing throughout the novel. We’re looking at the work of someone who has been called a “master,” who, by the time this book came out, had published dozens of widely acclaimed novels. And from what I gathered after skimming a bit of the afterword, Card spent a long time planning this book. Over twenty years. While this certainly shows in the careful world-building, it does not come through in the writing.

Let me elaborate. Two main things stood out to me, craft-wise, that I would get torn apart for if I handed them in to a creative writing teacher. Fluidity and pacing.

In this case, I take fluidity to mean how naturally the text reads. Now, this is a quick read, mostly because it uses simplistic language an giant font. But the sentences themselves are clunky and redundant. Remember the rule that you shouldn’t use the same word twice in one paragraph? Well, there are a number of instances where the same word appears in twice in a sentence (changeable words, not important ones like “gate” though that’s all over the place, too). I didn’t use to think this was such a big deal until I read it and noticed how it made the prose trip over itself. There’s also the matter of how Card ruminates over the same things, draws the same conclusions two paragraphs in a row, and takes entire pages to describe simple tasks and processes that could be covered in a few sentences.

Now, since I’m out of lit shape, I could be missing that maybe this style is common in fantasy literature…

… I’m making a face right now. It says, “I don’t buy it.”

So, what about pacing? As I mentioned before, the story drags on for a while where I’m not even sure whether what’s going on is at all important. Then at the end, suddenly the characters come together with a convenient solution to their problems and the remainder of the action is rushed over about fifty pages. I mean, it’s not Breaking Dawn-level disappointment and outrage, but it’s not too far behind.

Overall, I’d recommend not reading this one. I’m told I should’ve read Ender’s Game instead, and I’ll get to it at some point even though the movie was pretty lame (though that I blame mostly on poor child acting).

My advice as a lowly novice writer:

Card, you’re an excellent world-builder, so why bother trying to stick your overly complex magical system in this world? Rick Riordan already did the gods on earth thing (better, too). In my opinion, just ditch the Danny North plot and stick with the Wad plot. You don’t need Danny, and Iceway was infinitely more interesting and better written. The subplot basically stands on its own, anyway, so just commit to it.

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