Editor’s Note: Ender’s Game may be one of the most awaited film adaptations of a novel in recent years, and Stephen Olson is a huge fan of the novel, as well as its sequels. In the coming weeks and months, Attack of the Books! will feature his reviews and guide to the universe (or Enderverse, if you will) of Orson Scott Card’s award winning Ender’s Game series.
When reading the stories that take place in the Ender’s Game universe, order matters.
I first read Ender’s Game in 6th grade, and I absolutely loved it. Genius children entrusted with saving humanity from an alien menace? It’s the perfect premise for a geeky pre-teen.
Then I read the sequel, Speaker for the Dead. Complex moral dilemmas focusing especially on inter-personal relationships? Not quite perfect for a geeky pre-teen. Still, I did think it was a pretty cool book. When I read Xenocide, though, I just about gave up several times because of its dense, convoluted storyline full of complicated philosophical issues and theoretical physics. Even though I barely enjoyed it, I still made it through. I wasn’t aware at the time that there was a fourth book in the series, but even if I were aware, I would have had no interest.
Now, a good fifteen years later, I’m reading the series, for the fifth or sixth time. It’s more of an undertaking in some ways, with eight more books in the series published since then, as well as various short stories and graphic novels. Further complicating things, all of this new material takes place either during or before the chronology of the rest of the series. (Luckily, the placement of new material within the series helps with the pacing issue I encountered between Ender’s Game and Speaker for the Dead.)
I’m not the only one reading these books right now. With a movie adaptation of Ender’s Game coming out this Fall, a lot of people are either re-reading Ender’s Game or are reading it for the first time. Already I’ve had two students, as well as an assistant principal and several other colleagues, ask for advice on what order to read the series.
(I say “ask for advice”, but I should probably specify that in several instances I saw someone reading Ender’s Game and interceded before they got a chance to read Speaker for the Dead next without at least knowing why I thought that’s a bad idea.)
In general, I suggest chronological order. Some of the books that take place between Ender’s Game and Speaker for the Dead help to form a bridge between the themes and events of those books. Realistically speaking, though, reading this series in purely chronological order is impossible, or at the very least, highly inadvisable and nonsensical.
So here is how I would recommend you read the series:
1: Ender’s Game. This is still the best starting point. While Ender’s Game and Ender’s Shadow take place at the same time and basically tell the same story, I highly recommend starting with Ender’s Game. It grabs your attention more immediately, and you will better appreciate key plot points reading it from the Ender’s Game perspective for the first time.
1.01: A War of Gifts. The Christmas Special of the series. No, that’s not a joke. If you absolutely must read everything that has to do with Ender, then this is for you. (And if you absolutely must read it in perfect chronological order, this takes place during chapter 9 of Ender’s Game. Theoretically, I could list when to switch between stories to preserve continuity, but I certainly hope nobody cares that much.) I basically recommend against reading this if it’s your first time reading the series. Nothing important, and it feels thrown together. Still, a fun curiosity if you have the inclination.
2: Ender’s Shadow, Shadow of the Hegemon , Shadow Puppets , and Shadow of the Giant . Often called the Shadow Series (guess why!), these four books mostly focus on the character of Bean. Ender’s Shadow, as I hinted before, pretty much retells the original story, albeit from a very different perspective. Even though it tells much of the same story, the additional elements make it necessary to read. The other three books consist of completely new material, and fill in a few gaps, particularly involving Ender’s older brother, Peter. While these books do move a bit more slowly than Ender’s Game, they still move at a faster pace than Speaker for the Dead, which I think works much better for younger readers. Some elements of political intrigue might be boring to those younger readers, but mostly the action moves quickly.
2.5: Shadows in Flight. Orson Scott Card wrote this to wrap up some of the events in the Shadow series. It’s not absolutely critical to read. If you haven’t read the later books in the series before, I recommend skipping this for now, as it reveals some information that may affect how you understand the other books. Unlike the Shadow series, this book does very little to bridge between Ender’s Game and Speaker for the Dead. Orson Scott Card will eventually finish a book called Shadows Alive, and at that point, I imagine this book will be more necessary.
3: Ender in Exile. This is an immediate sequel to Ender’s Game. Similar to A War of Gifts, it feels a bit thrown together. Nevertheless, I still highly recommend this one. My biggest gripe with Speaker for the Dead is that Ender changes so much in the interim after Ender’s Game. This book helps to account for those changes. And despite feeling more like a series of episodes than a coherent whole, Ender in Exile really does help build the character of Ender and points him clearly in the direction he’ll be at by the time Speaker for the Dead happens. Less action-oriented than the Shadow series, this book also starts to focus more on the interpersonal drama that characterizes everything from Speaker for the Dead onward.
3.5: “Investment Counselor”. This 50-page story can be found in a collection of stories called First Meetings in Ender’s Universe (Other Tales from the Ender Universe). It’s somewhat interesting. I guess. I don’t recommend reading it during your first time reading the series. It’s just not that great or all that necessary to the series as a whole. And it may influence how you feel about things later in the series.
4: Speaker for the Dead, Xenocide, and Children of the Mind. Assuming you read 1, 2, and 3 on this list, you’ve been experiencing a slowing down in the pacing. Military action and excitement gives way to introspection. Hopefully, you’ve become acclimatized to the slower pace of Speaker for the Dead. Even reading the books in this order and knowing how different these books are (as well as how much I enjoy them), I still have a hard time when I get to this point. If you are looking at this list for the purposes of your child reading these books, I highly recommend that you read these ones at the same time. There is a lot of philosophy, not to mention some thematic material, which could provide some great discussion. In fact, why haven’t you been reading this whole series with your child all along?
There are also a lot of prequel stories. Let’s do a quick survey of those:
0: Earth Unaware , Earth Afire , and Earth Awakened. This trilogy, written in collaboration with Aaron Johnston, tells the story of Earth’s first war with the aliens. Really, you could read it completely separately from the Ender series and never know you were missing something. It gives backstory, but it’s unessential backstory. I enjoyed Earth Unaware, and look forward to reading Earth Afire as soon as I have the time. Earth Awakened is slated to come out next summer.
0.25: “Mazer in Prison“. This story can be found in Orson Scott Card’s online magazine, InterGalactic Medicine Show. I bought a subscription just to read this and a few other stories not found anywhere else. (That is, not found anywhere else as of yet. I imagine that at some point these other stories will be put in a compilation similar to First Meetings.) Anyway, this story gives more background on Mazer Rackham, Hyrum Graff, and the formation of the Battle School where Ender’s Game takes place. I enjoyed this one enough to read it a few times. Not critically important, but very interesting. Then again, Graff is one of my favorite characters, so I guess it’s obvious I’d enjoy extra backstory about him.
0.5: “The Polish Boy” and “Teacher’s Pest”. In addition to the aforementioned “Investment Counselor”, First Meetings also features a story called “The Polish Boy”, about Ender’s dad as a kid, and a story called “Teacher’s Pest”, about Ender’s parents meeting for the first time. Nothing Earth-shattering; but basically fluff, as far as I’m concerned. (First Meetings also features the short story original version of Ender’s Game, which is somewhat interesting. Fun to see how it all started, but nothing too different from the full-length novel.)
0.99: “Pretty Boy” and “Cheater”. These two stories are also available in Intergalactic Medicine Show. “Pretty Boy” tells about Bonzo Madrid and how he got into Battle School, while “Cheater” fills the same role for Han Tzu (Hot Soup). Both basically take place immediately before Ender’s Game. Both tell fairly pointless stories, as far as the rest of the series is concerned. More fluff.
So there you have it. If you didn’t notice (and I didn’t notice until now), the whole numbers are the ones I consider most worth reading. And as soon as Shadows Alive comes out to (hopefully) wrap up the series once and for all, I’ll likely upgrade Shadows in Flight to some variety of whole number.
Stephen Olson teaches math at North Layton Junior High. When not teaching math, he polices the halls and library of his school, ensuring that students partake of only the best reading material. On the rare occasions he finds himself away from school, Stephen reads, writes, and writes about reading. You can follow him on Twitter at @MathTeacherGuy or email him at mathteacherguyATgmailDOTcom.