While the continued existence of the human race in Ender’s Game provides a serious spoiler as to how the prequel First Formic War trilogy must end, I still enjoy the closing action in Earth Awakens as the story moves to its inevitable conclusion. Even if the following review makes it sound like I’m weary of the narrative at this point, I liked it.
One of the things I enjoy a lot about this trilogy is that each new book doesn’t waste time catching up the audience on what just happened. Earth Awakens is no exception, starting immediately where Earth Afire ended. Our protagonists continue their various missions, whether that be reconnoitering the alien mothership, helping a defiant nation fight off aliens whether they want it or not, or jockeying for influence in their dad’s enormous mining technology conglomerate.
The alien mothership plotline starts off very strong and features two of my favorite characters, but it gets somewhat lost as the rest of the plots take off. This crucial portion of the story disappears for about a hundred pages and devolves into yet another conflict emphasizing how free miners and corporate miners are from two different worlds and cannot trust each other. But for the good of humanity they must pool their knowledge and resources and start trusting each other. And yet on the other hand, they are from two different worlds and cannot trust each other. I think most readers got the point when the authors went over this in the first book. And the second one.
On the ground, as Mazer Rackham and his friends in elite fighting forces continue their work protecting civilians despite the local government rejecting international aid, we rehash another conflict. Military and governmental bureaucracies get in the way of anyone trying to accomplish anything of substance. Elite fighters who owe allegiance to humanity at large don’t let the politics get in their way and go rogue. Luckily, we’ve only seen this theme show up in one novel thus far so it hasn’t worn its welcome as thoroughly.
I actually most enjoyed the stuff where we read about the son of a CEO maneuvering for leverage in his father’s company while also trying to covertly bankroll efforts to defeat the aliens. While we have visited this plotline repeatedly over the previous books, it still managed to feel fresh and had the most interesting twists of any of the plots. In fact, despite having read this before, I was still surprised on occasion. One of my favorite chapters in the book features our would-be heir at a secret dinner meeting with an influential member of the board as part of his plan to wrest control from his father, while some of his associates are desperately trying to escape a life-threatening situation. It’s just so delightfully cynical.
In fact, I think that’s what sells me the most on this book: the theme of heroism versus cynicism, in the face of an existential threat to the human race. While we do have many characters who are pure-blooded selfless heroes, I much prefer the self-absorbed protagonists who are constantly having to balance their own interests with the good of the human race. Maybe it’s just the current election cycle, but it feels so true-to-life to see executives in a company create plans to save the human race while building prestige and making a massive profit for themselves.
At the same time that it provides a satisfying if cliché ride, Earth Awakens manages to tie up some loose ends in rather clever ways. I don’t want to spoil anything, but I will just say that we start to see the world shaping into the familiar one from Ender’s Game and especially the Ender’s Shadow portion of the series. There are some overtly resolved plot points, but also several subtle references that make the universe feel just a little bit more complete. Despite some of my concerns about continuity in Earth Unaware, this book brings it all home rather well. I still remember that when I first read this trilogy there was a plot element that seemed completely out of place, and yet it was resolved in a rather satisfactory way.
As far as I’m concerned, Ender’s Game and Speaker for the Dead are works of art. Every time I read those books, I feel like I understand humanity better than I did before. Ender’s Shadow and its sequels don’t quite reach that same artistic plane, but they still reveal more to me about the best our species could accomplish. Frankly, The First Formic Wars trilogy steps into impossibly large shoes. There’s no way it could accomplish the same thing as its predecessors. I would make the argument that it doesn’t even try.
And yet, in its own right, this trilogy expands the backstory in an exciting and compelling way. It’d make a much better science fiction blockbuster than Ender’s Game ever could. Sometimes I want to cry while reading a book and spend the next week rethinking what it means to be a member of the human race. Other times I just want to see highly trained soldiers blast a bunch of aliens. I’m in luck; The Swarm, the first book in The Second Formic War trilogy, arrived a month ago and now I can finally dig in.