This is a book review for The Lost Gate by Orson Scott Card for both readers (maybe you’ll decide if you’d like to read it) and for writers (what you can learn to do, and not to do in your own novel). There are no spoilers in this review.
Rating: 3 out of 5 stars (But I believe if could have easily been a 5 with some fixes)
I won’t use Amazon’s blurb because I think it makes the novel sound terribly boring, so I’ll sum it up for you. It’s a fantasy written for adults about a teenage boy who lives on a secluded compound filled with Norse gods and magical creatures. At first, you’d think this novel has a whole world on its own away from reality, which it does of course, but the majority is written in good ‘ol America. (I wish someone had warned me because I was completely disillusioned when Walmart appeared on my pages.) Once the magic hits however, it’s an exciting and fun ride.
What I did like:
1. Like: World-Building. The world-building was incredible and vivid. Part of this is because Card borrows from Norse mythology and spends a lot of time in the real world, and you usually can’t go wrong with that.
But he does manage to build a unique magic system even through this, centering around of course the “gates.” I think I’ve always been partial to worlds about instant transportation. The idea is fascinating and wonderful, and also frightening for those with such power if they have ill intentions. These are all points Card explores and I enjoyed the musing even when it’s dangerous to do so in a novel.
For writers, be sure to have a complex and exciting world for your readers to explore and enjoy. Taking a page from Card, using existing mythology can be a wonderful method to get one foot in the door by using pieces of a world the reader is already familiar with. But don’t be afraid to make up your own rules, no matter how similar or dissimilar your world becomes to established myths.
Recommended Resources for Writers: Wonderbook (An overall resource for world-building with essays written by established authors) & How to Write Science Fiction & Fantasy by Orson Scott Card – the featured author in this post!
2. Like: Easy to Read Prose. I consider prose that enables an author to maintain a voice without being distracting one of the most important elements in a good novel. If I’m constantly distracted by quirky writing, I’m going to have trouble getting into the story. Card does a wonderful job of being just the right amounts of descriptive, colorful, interesting, and maintaining clarity throughout the story.
3. Like: Humor. While there’s not a ton of humor, Card did fit a few places in there that made me giggle, and it can be a pitfall of fantasy novels not managing to find time for humor. Kudos to Card.
4. Like: Unique Feature. A completely mystical world with its own PoV is written alongside the real-world and Danny. It was done well and I enjoyed the variety. It almost felt like I was reading two separate books with the same magic system. (This point is kept vague to avoid spoilers!)
What I didn’t like:
1. Dislike: Lack of Character Development. I was shocked to realize that the characters, no matter how initially fascinating, never once evolved in this novel. And I think this is likely a result of rushing the novel’s final draft. Card is an established author with editors who are already extremely familiar with his work. I can see how it could be easy to let a novel out into the world before it’s ready, be it to meet deadlines or by having too much confidence in an author you trust. I’d like to read more of Card’s work in this series to see if this is a recurring issue, because everything else in this novel was so well thought-out I was pretty shocked to find the lack of emotional attachment I had with the characters. Given how many awesome other books Card has written, I want to give him the benefit of the doubt and continue the series.
At this point, a typical reader would leave it at “I didn’t have emotional connection” and move on to the next book. But I’m going to go a bit deeper to why I felt this way to help you avoid this mistake, because it’s easy to avoid if you know it’s there, or rather not there! And the simple reason is this, not once did I ever hear what Danny, the main character, the hero, the guy we’re supposed to care about, actually wanted. Not a single moment in the entire book did he express his desire for the future, or his fears of why he wasn’t going to get it. He complained about the past, and the current issues at hand, but he never actually made a plan for what he was going to do to reach whatever his goals were, which were never revealed, or didn’t exist at all.
This is what made me want to stop reading. I wanted to love Danny, but he was an emotionally dull character. I had no reason to care what happened to him because I just couldn’t get in his shoes. And while the ending was actually better than I expected, and I read it for the sake of this review, it still didn’t answer these questions like I had secretly hoped.
It’s a shame because something like this could have been fixed in a revision. All I needed were some self-reflecting moments or clues to what Danny actually wanted, and a fear throughout the novel that he wouldn’t get it. Sure, I was afraid for his life, but I needed more than that. Danny himself wasn’t all that concerned for his life anyway, so if that was the main motivator it was a poor one.
This ties in to my latest blog post about the 3 Pillars of Character Development, and if you are a writer I encourage you check it out.
2. Dislike: The Title. It makes no sense given the content of the novel, and feels like the name of the original idea for this novel and it’s since been revised. No gates were actually lost, they were stolen. This isn’t a spoiler because it’s made evident very early in the novel. Even in the very first chapter it goes on and on about how the gates were stolen, and this theme is kept all the way to the end of the novel. I was convinced the name of this novel was “The Gate Thief” and you can imagine my confusion when I went to look up this novel online: “What? The Lost Gate? — Checks my book cover — When did that happen?!”
I wonder if Card was painted into a corner, because the next novel in this series is actually called “The Gate Thief.” Even so, I don’t feel like “The Lost Gate” was an appropriate name for this book and is misleading to events that never occurred.
3. Dislike: Rushed Ending. When the climax came jogging up like an unwelcome salesman, it felt like the characters were trying to justify to themselves that it was time to cash in and end the story, and they were barely able to convince themselves, much less me, that this ending had come due to the culmination of Danny’s choices rather than the author reaching a quota of words and saying “okay I need to stop the story now.” And this is not an exaggeration, there is a conversation between the major characters at the end justifying why the end had come and why they couldn’t delay it.
Some may be surprised I only rate this novel 3 stars, but I stick to my guns on this one. The Lost Gate has so much going for it, yet the important stuff got left behind. I didn’t care what happened to Danny, and even stopped reading two chapters before the book ended! (Then I decided I wanted to review it, and forced myself to finish it, and somewhat enjoyed it in spite of myself because the world building is amazing.) No matter how awesome other aspects in the book are, the emotional connection needs to be there.
This concludes the book review of The Lost Gate! I hope you enjoyed it. Even though I have my qualms about what this novel did “wrong,” there’s a lot it did right too, and I would still recommend it as a good read if you enjoy fantastically built worlds and aren’t as focused on character-driven fiction as I am.