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Hidden Empire    by Orson Scott Card order for
Hidden Empire
by Orson Scott Card
Order:  USA  Can
Tor, 2009 (2009)
Hardcover, CD, e-Book

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* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

Hidden Empire is the sequel to Orson Scott Card's Empire. In that first near future thriller, after civil war erupted in the United States, Macchiavellian historian and government adviser Averell Torrent emerged as the new President - and an excellent one too, at least on the surface. But peace in the homeland does not guarantee global security, and Torrent awaits an opportunity to build the foundations for an American Empire.

Card opens each of his chapters with Torrent's very pertinent philosophic musings. The first opens, 'This is a dangerous planet' and continues to address 'the fundamental problem with democracy' which leaves its constituents as 'sitting ducks, waiting for the next disaster.' That immediately grabbed my interest and, indeed, I enjoyed these regular appetizers as much as the story itself.

Having made his point, the author goes on to develop such a planetary disaster (the chapter title of Sick Monkeys gives an immediate clue to its nature). He does so from the point of view of the novel's most interesting character, Chinwa, 'the fourth son of the third wife of the aging chief of his small tribe in the Kwara state of Nigeria.' This Candide-like character has one talent, tree climbing. He becomes a skilled Monkey-catcher and inadvertently unleashes a new 'sneezing flu' pandemic on the world. His people start to die. Then soldiers come and wipe out the remainder - except for Chinma who is up a tree.

The legendary Colonel Bartholomew 'Cole' Coleman 'single-handedly stopped a civil war in America' in Empire and continues to play a major role in this sequel. He remains close to Cecily Malich, widow of Reuben Malich, a brilliant special ops officer assassinated during the brief civil war. Cecily is also policy adviser to the President, and mother of five rambunctious children (the Malich family banter adds joy to this story). Cecily and Cole have shared their suspicions of Torrent's past actions and future plans.

The plot develops rather slowly as the plague begins to spread through Africa, the U.S. establishes a quarantine, and Cole is trained by Reuben's old special ops team to use an amazingly empowering new combat exoskeleton (only susceptible to an electromagnetic pulse). After the President sends them to prevent genocide in southern Nigeria, they use the technology to good effect and the story explodes into military action. Surprising heroes emerge, in particular American Christians who have traveled to Africa (in protest of their country's quarantine) to help those struck down by the pandemic, and the locals who value their presence and defend them.

The survivors of Reuben's old team return convinced that Averell Torrent had set them up in Africa 'in order to stir up the fever of imperialism in American hearts'. But they have differing ideas on what to do with this awareness, a dichotomy that drives the novel's conclusion. Hidden Empire is a big book with big ideas and an even bigger heart. It will make you think and it will make you cry. Don't miss it.

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