Orson Scott Card’s undisputed classic Ender’s Game opens on the alternately violent and tender sibling interactions between Valentine, Peter, and Andrew “Ender” Wiggin, three children who change the course of humanity’s history with their brilliance. Shadows In Flight, Card’s fifth novel in the parallel Shadow Saga, following Ender’s protégé Bean, begins with another trio of wildly gifted children, two brothers and a sister, discussing patricide. The opening echoes Ender’s Game, but it clumsily repeats the same exposition, another example of the diminishing returns Card’s unnecessary series extensions have earned.
Julian “Bean” Delphiki and his three children—ship mechanic Carlotta, boy-genius scientist Ender, and military strategist Cincinnatus—all suffer from Anton’s Key, a genetic disorder that lends them prodigious intelligence at an incredibly early age, but with the catastrophic side effect of gigantism and death by age 25. They travel through space so fast that time elongates, giving them time to wait for a cure to be found, but Bean has grown so large that he’s confined to the cargo bay as he nears the end of his life. The children appear doomed to live separated from human contact, unable to cure their condition without also relinquishing their advanced intellect.
Their lives finally get interesting when their flight path intersects that of a ship seemingly abandoned by the Formics, the insectoid alien species humans fought years before. Since Bean—or The Giant, as the children call him—has grown too large to search the ship, the children band together with different little missions to investigate the vessel. This takes time, stretching out every tiny discovery with Card’s insistence on continuing to build an even more complex future around a plot stuck in the doldrums. The book shifts perspective with every chapter, alternating through Bean and each of the children, as they grapple with their father’s profoundly superior intelligence. Bean’s chapters provide insight to a larger plan, designed to give his children more time to discover a cure, which teases itself out in short bursts of conversation that can only end predictably.
While Shadows In Flight doesn’t contain much of the philosophical meandering that weighed down the later entries in the Ender series, it lacks the consistent action of the rest of the Shadow books, which took place on politically polarized Earth. It moves at a glacial place for such a short book, meticulously telegraphing every move. Shadows In Flight isn’t even the complete story: Originally, it was meant as the link back to the Ender Wiggin narrative, but Card split off another upcoming volume, Shadows Alive, to extend the series yet again.
As such, Shadows In Flight wastes time, only to arrive at the middle of a larger story that would expand the scope beyond four characters and two locations that wear out their use far too quickly. Card even bungles the emotional impact of the final pages, ending with a sharp drop that doesn’t do justice to a fiercely important character to the overall saga. Shadows In Flight was supposed to provide answers, but like Ender In Exile, it merely fills in a bit of the blank space between other books without actually connecting them. What’s left is half a book primarily about loose ends that a steadily declining number of readers care about following long enough to tie everything up.