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Christmas at Battle School
on 14 December 2007
Science fiction and Christmas usually don't connect. They have different focuses, and not much in common.
But Orson Scott Card gives it a good try in the megabrief novella "A War of Gifts." Despite a rather abrupt ending, it's a pleasant little story with a dark side that one doesn't expect from a Christmas story, and a Scroogian main character who's hard to like.
That character is Zech Morgan, son of a fanatical preacher who condemns everything, and "purifies" Zech by beating him. Even when he's drafted into Battle School, which does not allow outward religious observance, he shows nothing but pious contempt for his classmates and superiors. But on Sinterklaas, one Dutch boy slips a gift into another's shoe. Zech sees and reports it, but their superior doesn't care.
Soon the other children have decided to pull a "Santa Claus" -- they'll exchange little gifts and favours over the holidays. But since Zech believes that Saint Nick is a tool of the devil, he disrupts the festive favors -- and it may take Ender Wiggin to show him what the real problem is.
Just a warning: this book is very short. Very short. As in, 130 smallish pages short -- if rendered in normal pages, it would be a fair-sized short story. But despite its brevity, it is a pleasant little story.
Half is a story about kids celebrating the spirit of Christmas (or Hanukkah, or Ramadan) despite their sterile, grim surroundings. Lots of fun, goodwill, and general holiday spirit. But about halfway through, it suddenly becomes darkly unfestive, as Ender tries to force Zech to confront -- without any "my father says" or Bible quotes -- the painful truth of his own feelings, and his father's cruelty.
Okay, readers will have picked that up long before. But Card imbues plenty of feeling into the story, including one bittersweet chapter about the Wiggin family Christmas without Ender. The main problem is that the ending is very abrupt -- it feels like Card lost interest after Zech and Ender's conversation, and wrapped it up as quickly as he could.
Zech is one of the most unpleasant lead characters in a Christmas story since Ebenezer Scrooge -- snotty, fanatical, hypocritical, and deliberately irritating. But Card inspires some pity for his miserable life, although thankfully Zech doesn't magically become lovably outgoing by the end. Ender's brief appearance is solid, but Peter's contemplation of his family situation is even better.
"A War of Gifts" is a bit darker and less festive than most Christmas stories, but still a nice little read for the holidays. Just don't expect more than a short story.