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Children of the Fleet
Fleet School #1
by Orson Scott Card
Tor, $25.99, 304pp
Published: October 2017

I've only just reached 1966 on my runthrough of winners of the Hugo Award for Best Novel, so I won't get to Orson Scott Card's double whammy in 1986 and 1987 for almost two years. Those wins were for 'Ender's Game' and 'Speaker of the Dead', the first two in an ever-growing nest of Enderverse books of which this is part.

Unless I'm missing something, there's 'Ender's Game', the Speaker trilogy and 'Ender in Exile', which links the former to the latter. There's also 'Ender's Shadow', which runs parallel to 'Ender's Game', being told from the perspective of Bean; that precedes the Shadow trilogy and a further sequel. Going back in time, there's 'The First Formic War' trilogy, written with Aaron Johnston, and the first two books in 'The Second Formic War' trilogy. There's a novella, a whole slew of short stories, some comic books and now this, which may or may not begin a new series called Fleet School. Whew.

It's been decades since I read those early Ender books, so I've forgotten a lot of the detail, and I haven't read any of the others at all, so I'm happy to say that this reads very well as a standalone novel. I do believe that a few things might have become clearer earlier in the book if I'd have been up to date with (or even refreshed in) the series and, reading up later, I see that I missed some things, but none of that mattered to the core story.

The time is between 'Ender's Game' and the Speaker trilogy, so Ender Wiggin is able to join the story via ansible but he's far off in space heading out on colonising business. Instead, our focus here is a different intelligent ten-year-old boy called Dabeet Ochoa, who finds himself caught up in shenanigans created by a supporting character in 'Ender's Game' whom I won't name. Those who have read a majority of the series will know who I'm talking about and the rest will not be spoiled.

He's grown up with his highly protective mother, who he loves but wishes to escape. As his father is supposedly an unnamed fleet officer, he's deemed a child of the fleet and he wants to leverage that by attending Fleet School, the space station that, during wartime, was the Battle School that Ender and Bean attended, and now serves to train the best and the brightest to lead a set of colonisation missions to spread humanity outwards. Even at a gifted school, Dabeet's test scores put him ahead of everyone else, so he seems an appropriate choice.

After he's visited by Hyrum Graff, the former principal of Battle School who now runs the Ministry of Colonization, he's kidnapped, but he persuades his captors to release him. However, he remains under threat to help them to get into Fleet School for their own purposes, a threat that he tries to mitigate for much of this novel, as it shifts from talky sf to sci-fi adventure.

I liked this quickly because Card writes intelligent characters superbly. He has no problem using a ten-year-old protagonist, making him both incredibly intelligent but also fundamentally flawed. In this book, Dabeet faces tests set by Graff and the most obvious is to figure out what he can't do and why he should address that. Initially, his most obvious flaw is arrogance, which prevents him making friends easily, but there are others that gradually show up and become important. Card handles them excellently.

He also manages the plot well, in that it's incredibly simple at heart but a lack of data makes for a crazy number of variables. The bad guys plan to get into Fleet School and they need Dabeet to let them in. If he doesn't do his bit, they'll kill his mother. If he does his bit, bad things will happen. So much we (and Dabeet) know. But who are the bad guys? What bad things do they plan? Why? And how can a bunch of kids on a space station counter them? The beauty of this book is that it's a maze of possibilities, woven into a core character study, which in itself has an extra layer that we eventually find out, even if Dabeet doesn't.

With everything focused tightly on Fleet School, we're stuck figuring out a lot of those answers as he does because, while we have the same data that he does, we don't have the same level of intelligence to make the same leaps of logic. The brighter you are, the better this book will play to you, because you'll be able to figure out at least some of what Dabeet does, on occasion ahead of him. Otherwise, the mystery will be moot and this will only be the sci-fi adventure it becomes.

Card has always done well with supporting characters but there are far fewer here than in 'Ender's Game' or 'Speaker for the Dead', mostly because Dabeet has such a hard time making friends, opening up to anyone or even asking for the help that he clearly needs. Zhang He, a fellow student who tries to befriend Dabeet through helping his innovations in the battleroom, is decent but not without his stereotypes.

It's Cynthia Munk, inevitably nicknamed Monkey, who fills that need, though she doesn't even show up until halfway through the book. I liked her a lot, even if she isn't without stereotypes too. She serves a very useful purpose, namely to make a character brighter than her (and everyone else) understand how much he still has to learn. She teaches him things that he doesn't even know that he needs to know, to the benefit of everyone.

I might suggest that her appearance is the point at which this book shifts its focus from Dabeet himself to the threat he's puzzling over, because the intrigue and second guessing eventually give way to good old fashioned fun, with the kids tasked with saving the day from whoever and whatever is going to show up. By this point, it felt less like 'Ender's Game' and more like one of the old Heinlein juveniles, which is a heck of a shift but not a bad one.

'Children of the Fleet' is labelled as a book in Fleet School, a series that doesn't otherwise exist. Reading up on the possibilities, this may or may not become that series, the label there just in case it does. So, for now, I guess this is a series of one book, but it's a good one that reminds me how good Orson Scott Card can be, when he's writing about intelligent kids. ~~ Hal C F Astell

For other titles by Orson Scott Card click here

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