In Ender's Game, Orson Scott Card placed an incredibly intelligent boy in an almost unbearable science-fiction scenario; the brilliantly character-driven action and the meticulously crafted tension of the world-building made this a book to remember. It set a pretty high bar.
In Pathfinder (2010), Card brings his considerable intelligence to bear on a new world (a colony planet of earth). It's a story that combines "magic" with science fiction, and introduces a new Really Smart Boy character placed in an untenable situation. And although it's no Ender's Game, it is a very good read.
Usually I sum up the plot of the books I review, but to do so in this case is tricky to do without spoilers, so I'll keep it very minimal. A boy, Rigg, grows up alone with his father, who educates him with a passionate intensity in all imaginable disciplines. Unfortunate circumstances lead to his setting off at a young age, accompanied by Umbo, a friend from home who's in a similar predicament) to find his sister in a far away town...but things are complicated by political intrigue, betrayal, and most of all by the strange gifts that Rigg and Umbo possess...
And it is these gifts that introduce timeslippiness into the story (I'm not saying anything else). Card spares no words in describing the confusion experienced by his characters as time becomes their tool, perhaps in an effort to make the reader feel less inadequate for not quite understanding it. However, I soon learned that I was not interested in the discussions of possible paradoxes and contradictions, and allowed my eyes to float gently past these sections, which weren't essential to the story (it worked, and I didn't care how).
The story of the boy's journey is interspersed with short glimpses of another story that occurred far in the past, when the planet was first being settled, and this story, too hinges on time travel, but of the science-fiction fold-in-space/time variety. Gradually, as this second story unfolds, the backdrop of Rigg's life (and destiny) become clear....
The world-building is complex, the paranatural abilities of various characters fascinating, and the unravelling of the mystery at the heart of Rigg's situation gripping. It is a long book, and an unhurried one, and yet it defied my efforts to read it quickly (which is praise, because that means I was too interested to skim). At times I felt Card lingered too lovingly on elements (there's a lot of banter, for instance) that didn't advance the story. And at times I took issue with decisions made by the characters, both on their own merits (which adds to the interest of reading), and with the author's decisions (with regard to one choice in particular, I felt that Card let me down, and I wasn't convinced). But on the whole I was pleased with the story, finding it interesting and cohesive.
This is not a book for those who want strong female characters front and center; it is 98% a book dominated by boys; I'm generously giving Rigg's sister 1.5%, his mother 0.2%, an inkeeper named Leaky 0.2%, and a really cool female biologist 0.1%. And it is not a book for those irritated by boys who are Very Smart and Preternaturally Poised. However, Pathfinder will probably prove to be a pleasant diversion for those who like the same books I like. It's the sort of book I was perfectly happy to have read, yet don't feel the urge to press into the hand of all and sundry. I think that the reason for my tepid enthusiasm is that Rigg is no Ender. Ender was vulnerable, and almost broken; simultaneously flawed and sympathetic; I cared deeply about him. Rigg seems emotionally untouched by events, lacking in empathy (except empathy of an intellectual variety), and although not unlikeable, not someone I cared about, and his sidekicks didn't fill the emotional gap. (Also, and this is petty, "Rigg," "Umbo" and "Loaf" (sidekick number 2), are hard names for me to swallow. Especially poor Umbo).
My own issues aside, the time travel elements provide a nice added bonus of intellectual puzzle...and I did read the book eagerly and with enjoyment.
Note on age: This is categorized as YA, and there's some violence, and complexity to the plot that might loose young readers. However, there's no sex; Rigg and Umbo never even think about it (exept for one teensy smidge of blushing on Umbo's part). I'd say that anyone who likes Rick Riordan's books (especially his later ones) would be just fine with this. So I'm sticking a middle grade label on it too.