Rigg is a 13-year-old boy who lives in seclusion with his father, surviving as a trapper and only occasionally going to the nearest town to sell animals’ pelts. He is successful as a trapper in part because he has a unique ability: he can see the “paths” people and animals have taken, in the form of a colored trail that stretches behind them, showing where they’ve been. This way, he can track almost anything — “almost” because the only person who doesn’t have a trail is his father…
Of course, many readers will be able to predict where the story is going when they encounter a young boy with a mysterious ability being raised in relatively poor circumstances… and while Orson Scott Card does take a page out of the standard fantasy rulebook here, he also adds enough unique and surprising elements to the story to make Pathfinder a successful YA novel.
The first indication that this is not your standard Ugly Duckling fantasy are the short scenes that open every chapter, telling the story of a spaceship leaving a doomed Earth to try and start a human colony on a new planet, thirty-one lightyears away. There are enough hints scattered throughout the novel to show that there’s a connection between these science fiction scenes and the main story, but a large part of the fun of reading Pathfinder is discovering exactly how the two narratives relate to each other, so I won’t reveal more about this here and let you discover the surprising nature of the Pathfinder’s SF/fantasy universe and its magic system by yourself. Let’s just say that Orson Scott Card introduces some really neat concepts here, especially given that this a YA novel.
When Rigg inevitably leaves his humble beginnings to find his destiny, he is accompanied by his friend Umbo, who also has a unique skill: he is seemingly able to slow down time. When Umbo combines this ability with Rigg’s, they discover that they are able to travel back in time and that their actions in the past affect the present. This leads to some nifty twists and turns in Pathfinder’s plot, but also to some overly convoluted attempts to explain causality and time travel paradoxes, e.g. Umbo saying things like this: “I have to do it because I know I already did, only when I did it, it was the future, so I have to get to the future in order to come back and do what I already did.” While this was probably necessary early on to help YA readers with this relatively challenging concept, it happens a few times too often and starts to get annoying after a while.
Aside from this, the novel is fortunately a fast-moving and entertaining story that’s simply hard to put down. Orson Scott Card gradually reveals more of the fantasy world (and, as mentioned before, how it connects to the SF chapter openings), and a large part of the fun is the slow trickle of information that leads to a complete picture by the end of the book. The cast of characters is mostly engaging and easy to empathize with (although you may have to suspend disbelief quite a bit when you see Rigg’s transformation early on in the novel). There’s occasionally some repetitiveness in the dialogue, especially the ongoing friendly bickering between Umbo, Rigg and their companion Loaf, but all in all this story rarely gets boring and should keep you eager to find out how it all ends.
However, be warned: despite there being no indication of this on the cover, the ending of the book and the author’s afterword make it clear that Pathfinder is actually the opening volume in a series. While the novel has a solid resolution, by the end it’s clear that there’s more to the story. It would certainly have been nice to know that this is not a standalone! Let’s hope the next volume will remain as engaging at this one, now the mystery of some of the world-building has been revealed and the book will have to rely more on plot and characters.
Pathfinder is the kind of book that would have blown my mind when I was 13 or so, and as such, it’s a very successful YA novel that may just lead some younger readers to explore more SF and fantasy. As an adult reader, you’ll probably still have a great time with this book if you’re willing to suspend some disbelief and forgive some repetitiveness, but with its neat world-building and fast-paced, engaging plot, Pathfinder makes a great holiday gift if you want to steer your YA readers towards SF and fantasy.