Pathfinder is Orson Scott Card’s first foray into the entirely new world of the Serpent World series. Pathfinder has a lot in common with Card’s excellent and popular Ender’s Game series from the eighties: a child prodigy is thrown into a dangerous and bewildering situation by the adults in authority. Rigg and his father are trappers in an isolated forest, but Rigg’s education extends far beyond woodsmanship, delving into physics, history, finances, and more. Unbeknownst to Rigg, his father is preparing the boy for a future that will take Rigg out of the woods and into a political minefield—and that’s only the beginning. (You know things are going to get complicated when every chapter is preceded by a man wrestling with physical paradoxes and, occasionally, robots while flying in an enormous spaceship.)
Rigg is brilliant—in all senses of the word
Card’s characters are known for being unique and believable, and young Rigg is no exception. Rigg is a phenomenal mix of thirteen-year-old naivety with uncommon logical and rhetorical brilliance; like Ender, Rigg is obviously a genius, and yet the shifting, complicated relationships Rigg forms with his friends and enemies make him an entirely new entity. You’ve never met a boy like Rigg. Instead of solving problems with violence, Rigg uses his cunning brain to get out of trouble, and his altogether unique talent—the ability to sense living things’ paths through space and time—creates mindboggling puzzles that take time for the reader to figure out as well as Rigg’s friends.
Secondary characters, from Umbo to Loaf to Leaky to Param, are also all well-developed. Although Rigg is obviously the star of Pathfinder, there are several hints that the others will take on more prominent roles in future books. The most interesting character of all is Rigg’s demanding father—known to others as the Wandering Man or Wandering Saint—who dies unseen early in the book but has a lasting and palpable influence on all of Rigg’s decisions from beginning to end.
Time travel… wait, what?
Card does some complicated things with time travel, philosophy, and physics in Pathfinder—things that most readers may find very difficult to follow. Luckily, all of Pathfinder’s characters find themselves in the same position, and they spend a considerable amount of time—too much time, perhaps—discussing the possibilities and implications of such talents as Rigg and others have. I’m not convinced that Card’s system ever really makes sense, but it’s consistently followed in the book, and somehow he managed not to shake my state of suspended disbelief throughout the whole novel.
The man in the spaceship I mentioned earlier is Ram Odin, an idealistic space pilot from Earth attempting to navigate his ship through paradoxical folds in space and time. These sections following Ram are always very brief—one to two pages at most—and it is only approaching the end that the surprising connections between Ram’s and Rigg’s stories become clear. It’s another credit to Card that Ram’s short snippets offer just as much intrigue and character development as Rigg’s longer chapters.
Card balances the puzzle of time travel with his straightforward, bordering-on-blunt style of narrative. Only in the style is this book’s Young Adult categorization noticeable. Instead of lengthy frilled descriptions of the people and places that Rigg encounters, Card opts for short, simple sentences and reasoning. The style works remarkably well both in action scenes and in reflective or confusing time-traveling scenes.
Other reviewers mentioned being irked by the occasional expository paragraph, but I took it as a symptom of Rigg’s highly logical and highly trained mind. He weighs his options, works through the potential consequences of each, and then makes his decision. Fortunately or unfortunately, Card usually makes these thought processes visible to the reader. I often needed them and always enjoyed them—but perhaps, for some sharper-thinking readers, these explanations will seem too obvious and patronizing.
Why should you read this book?
For Card’s thousands of existing fans, regardless of age, this book will be an obvious choice: it’s sophisticated, intelligent, and full of the elements that made Ender’s Game such a hit. For those of you who’ve yet to encounter Card, or those of you who remain unconvinced, I still heartily recommend it. Pathfinder is more intellectual and less aggressive than Ender’s Game, but equally engrossing—and it’s clear that this series will only get better.