While no one book is for everyone, many people underestimate how addictive Orson Scott Card’s Ender universe novels can be. Sometimes I find that the depth of his stories can vary from book to book, but his world building never fails to be phenomenal. You can argue that some of these books are unnecessary and don’t enhance the original story that much. I would argue in turn that needed or not, nothing in Card’s universe is simply filler, and all the books are wonderful glimpses into this complex world and history.
But navigating that complexity is tricky. At this point some novels bridge multiple subseries within the Ender universe, and many readers don’t expand much beyond the core books out of sheer confusion. If you’ve read the core series and are ready to branch out a bit, here’s a short guide to the many different sagas. Diana Sousa and I have provided some thoughts and reading recommendations along the way as well as individual book synopses as we travel through Ender’s world.
The Formic Wars – Emma
I shied away from picking up these books at first. I’m a huge believer in fantasy and sci fi starting in medias res or in the middle of the action. I feel it makes these new worlds feel a bit bigger if we are tossed in and left to sort out much of the larger picture on our own. If everything about the place can be explained to me in the course of a book, it’s clearly either not a very realistic world or a very boring one. So I loved the idea of so much of Ender’s Game being in response to a past war that was already becoming more legend than fact. And quite frankly, a blow by blow retelling of those wars was never high on my list of dream books.
However, once I got over my initial reservations, I found these stories compelling in their own right. In many ways I feel they stand apart from the other Ender books and should be kept so. This is a different time, a different war, and different perspective on life. If you’ve read and enjoyed everything else in the universe, you should definitely give these books a try. But despite occurring first in the timeline, I wouldn’t recommend anyone start here. Start with Ender and then move on to Bean. I do think that reading these first could negatively alter a reader’s initial impression of Ender’s Game.
First contact. A day many dream of – but what happens when it goes terrible wrong? This is the beginning of the story of man vs. Buggers. Two teams of asteroid miners are having a scuffle of their own when they draw the attention of an alien ship. Things go steadily downhill from there and much of the first moments of the war take place far from civilization…making it far too easy to dismiss as a hoax.
No one believes the stories people have brought back from the mines. At least not until the aliens arrive right on their heels and begin reigning fire and terror from the sky. Completely unprepared for the invasion, the world scrambles to pull itself together and the first line of defence is drawn by the Mobile Operations Police and a man by the name of Mazer Rackham.
The Ender Saga – Diana
The Ender series now has five books, as well as some short stories. But even if we only count the main five, there are still doubts about the better reading order. Should Ender in Exile be read after Ender’s Game or only after the other four?
Most people seem to agree that these books should be read in publication order, the argument being that this way you are reading the story the way the author intended you to. I will follow that order, but if you’d rather read the story chronologically, I suggest you read Ender in Exile after the first book. The author has said that either order is fine, because each of his books contains all the information you’ll need.
Humanity is on the brink of war yet again. They barely won the last two wars against the aliens, the buggers, so this time they want to be ready. And to do that, they’ll train the most formidable army the world has ever seen, with the greatest commander at its front.
That’s where Ender comes in. Merely a child, he’s also a genius, and probably the only one capable of leading this army. But first he’ll have to survive the most brutal, demanding, and violent training a soldier has ever seen. The Battle School is not for everyone, and there are many who doubt its methods. But it might still be exactly what Earth needs.
Speaker for the Dead
Many, many years have passed since Ender left Earth behind. He’s been travelling the universe at relativistic speed, allowing him to stay young while the world outside goes on. In the meanwhile the books he wrote have become almost holy, but his name is now seen with disgust and contempt.
But now he has found another alien race, the Pequeninos, or “Piggies”. They live on the planet Lusitania, and they are still a very young race, only now starting to wonder what those bright spots on the sky might be. The humans see this as an opportunity to redeem themselves and decide to protect them. Or do they?
Yet again, trouble arises between the aliens and the humans. Ender is called to Lusitania, where he’ll study the mysterious Pequeninos, as well as the strange deaths that have been happening.
A strange disease, the descolada (“no longer glued”), has been killing the humans that live on Lusitania. On the other hand, the “Piggies” need this same virus to become adults, since they have long adapted to this deadly disease. The Congress fears it might spread to other colonies, and so it sends a fleet to “take care of it”. Ender, still living on Lusitania, attempts to find a solution to this, before it’s too late and the past repeats itself all over again.
Children of the Mind
This book was originally the second half of Xenocide, before it was split into two novels, so it picks up immediately after the other book ends. Lusitania and all its inhabitants are still in danger, and something must be done about it.
Jane, an evolved and sentient A.I., has learned how to move spaceships outside the universe, being able to transport them instantly to another planet. She has been doing this for a while, attempting to save as many as she can, but it’s taking everything she has. The Congress is shutting down the Net, and as its fleet gets closer and closer, Jane is starting to power down. Ender’s family members are the ones capable of saving her, and along with Jane the entire planet of Lusitania.
Ender in Exile
What happened between the first and the second book that led to Ender being seen as a killer instead of a hero? What happened to all his friends and colleagues, who were mere children when taken from home but are not growing into adults? This novel happens at the same time as the last three books of the Shadow Saga, and concludes a story line that started there.
Ender in Exile follows Ender at the start of his journey throughout the universe. He will find people who want to discredit him, and one of them is closer to him than he might suspect. Valentine is still close to her brother, and she’ll help him uncover the true identity of what seems to be a new enemy.
The Shadow Saga – Emma
Too often I hear the Shadow books described as a retelling of the Ender saga from a different perspective. Rather, they are an intersecting perspective. While there are occasional overlaps, the Shadow saga is mostly a completely separate story about a completely separate person. Unlike the Formic Wars, I think you could read these either apart from or prior to the Ender books. Not sure why you’d want to, but I don’t think there would be any confusion at all.
If you decide to read past Ender’s Game at all, I highly encourage you to at least read Ender’s Shadow. This book brings into the spotlight little Bean, and he steps up into Ender’s shoes as a protagonist with perfect ease. While Battle School is central in this book as well, Ender is not so much. Bean has problems and projects of his own. Instead of retelling Ender’s story, Card is completely focused on Bean and allows his former hero to step into a supporting role. Read together these books give the entire situation an eerie sense of realism.
As a street kid, Bean doesn’t have a lot of prospects. Young though he is, he attracts the attention of two very different people. One might be a stepping stone to a better life, and the other becomes his nemesis and will haunt his footsteps. Recruited into Battle School, it seems Bean has found his niche. With an intelligence that surpasses even the golden boy, Ender, Bean becomes central to the war effort…but for him there are other wars being fought in the shadows. Despite his fears and fights, Bean also finds friends among the other children, and when the war is over he returns not only to Earth but to a family.
Shadow of the Hegemon
For one moment, it seemed Bean finally has a perfect life. But the world is in turmoil as Ender’s brother Peter tries to consolidate his power. All the other members of Ender’s command begin to disappear, Bean and Peter must join forces to save the most brilliant military minds of their age. And once again a past enemy pits himself again Bean.
Peter might be in charge of the world, but his decision to let criminal mastermind Achilles go affects Bean personally. He and Petra both go on the run feeling certain that Achilles will come after them. Along the way, they not only fall in love, but find out more about a genetic condition that both fuels Bean’s genius and will cause him to die young.
More than it’s predecessors, this book spits its focus between Peter Wiggin’s efforts at world domination, and Bean’s own personal story. While one is playing nations as game pieces, the other is frantically searching for his stolen children. And time is getting short for Bean. His growth is nearing the point his body will begin to fail. Reaching out to various friends from the Battle School for help, Bean begins not only to sort out his own problems, but also to do a last service for his former commander Ender…a service that will come to be known as Jane.
Shadows in Flight
Bean has left Earth, taking with him the three of his children affected by his genetic abnormality. He hopes to use space travel to buy them all the time necessary to find a cure. What they do find is a Formic arc. Now one man who can no longer stand and his three six-year-olds must confront the remnants of one of his oldest enemies.
And as Diana noted, Ender in Exile also ties back into this series as well, which makes it difficult to decide where in the reading order it goes. There is also a forthcoming novel that is supposed to occur after Children of the Mind and once more tie the Ender and Shadow sagas together.