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Hidden Empire by Orson Scott Card

Cover art by Bob Werner

Published by Tor Books

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

Hidden Empire takes up almost directly after the events of Empire, in which historian Avrell Torrent went from professor to President of the United States of America after an assassination and a failed coup. The US and the world at large are in an increasingly precarious situation, with ample indications that trouble is going to be coming from somewhere. Not just wars and revolutions, but the really nasty stuff Mother Nature can dish out -- storms, earthquakes, epidemics and pandemics.

Thus we don't start out with any of the major characters from Empire (other than the opening bit from Torrent's notes). Instead we begin with Chima, a young man of the Ayere tribe in Kwara state, Nigeria. They're nominally Christian, but it's a very nominal sort of Christianity, heavily overlaid with traditional African tribal beliefs. The fourth son of his father's third wife (his father is the tribal chief, and as thus practices polygamy), he's treated as surplus, an unwelcome extra mouth to feed, until his ability to capture entire families of monkeys for scientific study makes him particularly valuable.

And then one day he catches a troop of sick monkeys. At first he thought they were just unusually docile, which made his job that much easier. But they were a bit snappish, and one of them bit his brother Ire on the hand. And another sneezed right into Chinma's face.

When they take the monkeys to the city to get their money and Ire falls ill, nobody thinks much of it -- until his condition deteriorates with phenomenal rapidity, and people who came into contact with his blood fall ill with the same fatal sickness. It's so terrible that people in hazmat suits come to burn down the clinic where Ire was treated and bury everything that's left, in hopes of eradicating the horrible germ that caused it. Like many of the horrific tropical diseases such as Ebola and Marburg, it proves to be self-limiting for the simple reason that it is so virulent that it kills its hosts before they can pass it to very many people, burning itself out before it can spread widely.

Except they've only stopped one form of it, the blood-borne pathogen passed to Ire by a monkey bite. Although Chinma goes home to his village in the bush thinking himself to have escaped, he is in fact carrying a different form that proves far more dangerous, a form that settles in the lungs and lurks for several days before producing the worst symptoms. Days in which the person can pass the virus to others through casual contact, particularly through the droplets of moisture propelled into the air by a sneeze.

When he falls ill, it is not long before the illness sweeps through the entire village. Somehow he pulls through, and remains just strong enough to nurse a few members of his family through the illness as well. A few other families in the village, uncles and aunts, nephews and nieces, cousins of various degrees, also pull through, whether through natural resistance or because someone in their family stayed well enough to nurse them.

But the respite doesn't last for long, for as the disease spreads across Nigeria and beyond, it puts pressure upon the fractures that strain the delicate social fabric of a country that is by and large the artificial product of colonial policy rather than the organic development of local cultures. As leaders of other tribes, particularly the Muslim Hausas of the north who have held most of the political and economic power, begin to panic, they see the source of the disease as something to wipe from the face of the Earth. Never mind that in fact people who have survived the disease are a medical treasure, being immune to reinfection and thus able to nurse others through it without placing themselves in further danger, the irrational fear and anger of those in command leads to an unspeakable act of mass murder.

One they might well have gotten away with, had Chinma not been taking refuge in his beloved trees, their branches and leaves hiding him from the sight of the goons doing the actual killing or the big wheels who are ordering it -- and kill the goons in turn. Although initially overwhelmed by the horror of seeing the few surviving members of his community murdered before his eyes, Chinma has the presence of mind to remember the tiny digital camera he was given by a scientist for recording the activities of a species of rare monkey living in a grove of trees not far from his home. Instead he will put it to even better use recording the activities of another species of primate -- our own.

Once the killers are gone, Chinma's next problem is to get the evidence of these atrocities to someone trustworthy, someone who won't just brush it -- and him -- under the rug. Which means a very dangerous trip to the big city for a young man now robbed of any form of social support network and still recovering from the disease that nearly killed him.

A combination of mother-wit and good luck connects him with an honest scientist and a US soldier who get the damning photographic evidence into the proper hands -- and realize that they've also got to get Chinma out of the country right away, because his life is in immediate danger. So off he goes to the US, where doctors and scientists desperately try to learn as much as they can from him about the course of the nictovirus disease and what enabled him to survive when half of his people didn't.

Not exactly a safe and supportive environment for a young person barely on the threshold of manhood, who's just lost every single person he cares about -- as President Torrent quickly recognizes when Chinma visits the White House. So the leader of the most powerful country in the world makes a telephone call to a woman who is one of his most trusted advisors, and thus Cole and Cecily re-enter the story in earnest. Off Chinma goes to join Cecily's happy family, one whose happiness has been moderated by the grief of losing her husband Reuben, father of their five children.

But the nictovirus is spreading rapidly in spite of all efforts to contain it, including the closing off of the entire continent of Africa in hopes that it will burn itself out there and spare the rest of the world. Many people are breathing a sigh of relief that it started in a part of the world so hideously poor that most people's transportation options were circumscribed, preventing the specter of an infected person hopping on an airplane and contacting thousands of travelers who would spread it to the entire world in a single infection cycle.

But not everybody -- which brings the storyline back to Africa as Cecily and her oldest son join a Christian group who are hoping to nurse people through the illness and train the resulting pool of survivors to save other people in an ever-widening circle, spreading hope both physical and metaphysical. At the same time, Cole and Reuben's old jeesh are operating in the same part of Nigeria, trying to curb the Hausa efforts to use genocide to contain the epidemic.

It is a very grim sequence of human suffering and bravery in the face of almost impossible odds. It makes me think of the early parts of John Ringo's The Last Centurion, except that at this point the disease has not yet spread to the United States. And much as Card popped the bubble of invulnerability by killing Reuben in Empire, he shows us once again that being a major character is not a guarantee of getting through the novel alive. And he takes an even bigger risk in this volume by killing off a major point of view character who isn't a trained soldier whose job is risking his life for his country, but an idealistic teenager still struggling to find his calling in life.

In my review of Empire I had commented upon how well Card captured the mindset of soldiers. However, in this book there are some things in the characterization of the surviving members of Reuben's jeesh that really strike me as being off-base. In particular, their open criticism of President Torrent, which quickly goes to outright suspicion of the President's actions, with several characters openly suggesting that he may have in fact set up several key events, even handed information to enemies in order to manufacture incidents that would help to motivate the American people to fight.

This characterization is problematic because it goes against the very deep tradition in the US military that one does not criticize a sitting President while one is serving. Yes, Bandit Six in The Last Centurion has some very harsh words for the absurdly incompetent President Warrick, but he is speaking in retrospect, after she has been voted out of office, which makes his situation more ambiguous (some veterans hold that if you have ever served under a particular Commander-in-Chief, you have a lifetime obligation toward him or her, while others regard former Presidents as fair game, particularly for people who have left active duty).

And that issue is tied in with the factors that make the ending of this novel so complex and complicated -- and difficult to discuss. Here we run into the conflict between the purposes of the selection review and the literary/critical review. The selection review is intended to help potential buyers decide whether the book is of interest for them, and as a result the reviewer has an obligation to avoid unnecessarily revealing key turning points, and absolutely should not give away the ending unless it is so bad that there is simply no way to convey its sheer awfulness without a detailed description. By contrast, the literary/critical review is intended to illuminate the inner workings of the fictional narrative, which often means that one must necessarily discuss the way in which the ending fulfills (or fails to fulfill) the promises that were made in the work's beginning and developed through the middle.

That issue is made even more complicated by the fact that this book is the second in what is clearly intended to be a multi-volume series, and quite possibly an open-ended one. As such, the ending serves to set up the situation that will start the next volume of the series -- which means that the surprising twist in the ending creates a huge range of very interesting possibilities for directions in which Mr. Card could take the storyline. Now it's quite possible that Cole has made the right decision by standing by his Commander-in-Chief in the dramatic final confrontation -- but it's also equally possible that the third book in this series may well reveal that he's made a horrible mistake, that he's destroyed the best friends he had and the last, best hope of preserving the Constitution he had sworn to protect and defend, and far from saving the Republic he has given further impetus to a process that is digging it deeper and deeper into a hole.

And worse, the circle of people Cole can turn to for advice has shrunk exponentially, by his own hand. If he has made a disastrous mistake, not only may he not know it until it is far too late, but other people are going to be very cautious about trying to warn him about future problems, lest he decide that they too are disloyal and planning a coup, and wipe them out as well.

All we can do at this point is wait for the third book to come out and see where the author is taking the storyline.

Review posted August 8, 2010.

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