Orson Scott Card’s novels (in hardcover, several autographed) own the lion’s share of the top shelf in my main bookcase. Though he is one of my favorite authors, I’ve read enough of his work to know that it can be, at best, inconsistent. Ender’s Game and Speaker for the Dead are science fiction classics and also modern classics of children literature. As a teenager, in tears when Ender and Valentine bid each other farewell in Speaker, I thought, “I want to write like this someday.”
But Card does not always hit the mark, either. Xenocide and Children of the Mind are nowhere near classics, even though they are part of the same series. While I have enjoyed all of the Ender’s Shadow books (featuring the secondary character, Bean, from Ender’s Game), they don’t possess the same magic, either. In some ways, they are better than the originals – better character motivation, better structure, better dialogue – but they are not classics. They are not better stories, just better plots.
And his recent books – Magic Street and Empire, especially – have really fallen short of my expectations (although Empire’s sequel, Hidden Empire, surpassed my low expectations).
So it is interesting for a fan like me to read his short fiction which can be, even for the best of writers, all over the place: the characters, plots, worlds, and ideas presented can run the gamut from pitiful to mediocre to okay to great to phenomenal, all within a single collection.
For aspiring authors, the book has one feature that stands out even above the quality of the stories: author commentary notes on the development of each and every story. We novices can see behind the curtain at how great (and mediocre) fiction is written, how a writer lives, and so on. We find out where Card gets his ideas, which ideas he believes have potential for novels, and why some almost-novels went to rest in short story format.
In Keeper of Dreams, Card gathers together twenty-two short stories and novelettes, mostly written since his 1990 collection Maps in the Mirror (but a few are older). There are six general science fiction stories, eight general fantasy stories, two fantasy stories set in his Alvin Maker alternative history setting, two literary stories, and four stories classified as “Mormon stories,” which are, in his words, “culturally Mormon” – written by a Mormon about Mormons and with the intention of being presented to a Mormon audience.
The canny reader will notice immediately the first flaw of this collection: no Ender stories. Card has written four such stories that have appeared in his online magazine Orson Scott Card’s Intergalactic Medicine Show (Amazon, B&N) and were then released in another 2008 collection of the same name, edited by Edmund R. Schubert and Orson Scott Card (also from Tor). As such, none of the Ender’s universe stories were available for inclusion in this collection.
Still, Card fans are exposed to some returning favorites. One of the short stories is a prequel to Card’s Alvin Maker novel The Crystal City, the events of which set up the storyline of the novel (the author note explaining, and apologizing, for how this came to pass). A couple are “off-screen” stories from Magic Street. Mostly, however, the stories are stand-alone.
So, you are probably asking, are the stories any good? They are … but, by and large, they are not great. A couple are phenomenal.
I won’t tell you which ones. For that, you will have to read them yourselves, because as Card’s author notes make clear, what is one reader’s (or writer’s) favorite story may not resonate with others, and stories that the author considers trivial may get a better response than expected. That is part of what makes reading (and writing) them so much fun.
This review was published in Black Gate #15. The book was provided by the publisher for review purposes.
Andrew Zimmerman Jones is a writer of fiction and non-fiction. He has been a finalist in the Writers of the Future contest and received Honorable Mention in the 2011 Writer’s Digest Science Fiction/Fantasy Competition. In addition to being a contributing editor to Black Gate magazine, Andrew is the About.com Physics Guide and author of String Theory For Dummies. You can follow his exploits on Facebook, Twitter, and even Google+.