Orson Scott Card does nothing if he doesn’t thoroughly analyze a topic through his novels. Some may be pure fiction, such as time travel analyzed in Pathfinder and Ruins, stand-ins for the non-fictional such as the Ender series where he analyzes hatred of and hostility towards those who are different (Ender’s Game), then dealing with the consequences of how you treat those who are “other”, alien or different than you. In Empire and Hidden Empire, Mr. Card reflects on the political chasm of those who are conservative and those who are liberal (red state vs. blue state), a civil war that results from the chasm and a potential leader who views the only solution to that and other global problems is to become a benevolent dictator, albeit one who keeps the form of democracy.
Of course, the idea that the best leaders can’t be voted in a democracy is nothing new nor is the idea of a benevolent king. We can look to Plato’s Republic to remind us that the very desire for office is a trait that precludes you for being the best person for office. Rather the best person must be forced to take office. Jumping forward to the day when Octavian thinks Augustus is a good idea and we have one man’s solution out of the mess that the red/blue state division leads us.
While I’ll be reviewing the books together, Empire can stand on it’s own; Hidden Empire would be a bit more frustrating to read without Empire. Empire essentially deals with the lead up to and conclusion of the civil war. Hidden Empire leads up to creating a political base taking advantage of deadly events.
What I love about the series:
- Told within the context of family. Political and global events effect us locally with our own particular take on things. This typically happens in the context of relationships and family. At least for now, family is still the bed rock of relationships. Mr. Card does a beautiful job giving events meaning and impact by telling them from within a family perspective while not losing an eye toward global implications.
- Clear analysis and articulation of all of the sides. Throughout the story, Mr. Scott nicely presents the perspective of red state, blue state and the various factions that think they have a solution to the ripped social contract that is America.
- The characters. I love Rubin, Cecily and the children. I love and empathize with Cole. While I disagree with some of what everyone says, I even appreciate the motivation of General Alton, Aldo Virus, Averill Torrent and the Jeesh. Among the main characters, there really are no totally evil, one-sided characters. They all thought they were doing at least some of what they did for “good.” Ain’t that the way.
- The Storytelling: This is a good story with well-done dialog, well-timed actions and a great narrative line. Even if we were to ignore what it was about, it’s a good story. I should add that I’m in the minority of assessments of the story. Most think it’s mediocre, even fans of Mr. Card. Indeed, I held off reading the series for a long time due to many reviews but my three teenage boys continued to hound me – “have you read it yet?” I gave in and am glad I did. I’m not sure where the disconnect is but I liked it.
- The openness of the conclusion. As much as some people suggest Mr. Card has an axe to grind, you’re pretty much left to your own devices about whether morally justifiable action is taken, even in a utilitarian way.
What do I not care for about the series?
- The deaths: No spoilers, just to say there are some characters I came to care about who die. In particular, there is a point in Hidden Empire where I was fully weeping in my kitchen. Now I confess to tearing up more than most in emotional moments of books and movies, but it’s been a long time since a book had me doubled-over crying like a baby. Alas, good people die.
As is my typical practices, I went between the Kindle and Audible versions of Empire but the Audible version only of Hidden Empire. Mr. Card provides the narrative introduction to each chapter while Stefan Rudnicki narrates the core of the story. Mr. Rudnicki is a consummate narrator and he brings his golden voice, deft pacing and perfect inflections to bear on these stories. He ranges from a Southern soldier and an eastern-seaboard house wives / political wonk to an Hispanic soldier and a Nigerian boy; now that’s range. An amazing job, as always. Rusty Humphries joins the narration effort in Hidden Empire and does fine job essentially playing himself. If you enjoy audio books, you’ll like this version.
This is good political intrigue brought down to the reality of family in the midst of a deeply divided world. I commend it to your reading, some of which will feel like reading current events.