Set in the war-torn future of Card’s acclaimed Ender’s Game series, the focus for this short novella A War of Gifts moves from the series hero to Zeck, son of an abusive fundamentalist preacher. Zeck’s phenomenal abilities for memorization and judging a situation make him an ideal candidate for the International Fleet’s Battle School, an academy that trains boys to be brilliant military leaders in an ongoing interstellar war. Despite his mental aptitudes, Zeck proves an unwilling pupil when he refuses to participate in battle simulations, claiming them to be against the pacifism of his religion. This clash of personal religion vs. duty to society comes up early on, when Zeck is first "recruited".
Children have no religion," said the stranger. "That's why we take them so young---before they have been fully indoctrinated in any ideology."
"So you can indoctrinate them in yours," said Father.
"Exactly," said the man. p 22
Zeck's beliefs make him a pariah within the school, pushing him to cry foul when he sees two Dutch students quietly celebrate Christmas---or Sinterklaas Day---by exchanging satirical poems. This kicks off a cultural revolt, pitting students of different religions against each other and against the school in the name of religious freedom. Ender himself plays a small but pivotal role in the end of the story by confronting Zeck and forcing him to deal with the dark issues of his past.
I'll be honest, I wasn't sure what to think when I got this in the mail to review. The whole concept of a Sci-fi Christmas Story left me a little worried. Also, I've never read Card. For whatever reason he's one of those many authors I've just never picked up. But he handles it all well; what could easily have turned into an all-too-sweet mess developed into a thoughtful parable about religious freedom, cultural differences and knowing yourself.
Reader reviews on Amazon and other places claim Card put out this little novella---a slim, 128 page volume---to meet publisher deadlines. But I think what they are reacting to is not so much the thinness of the book but Card's approach; Sci-Fi purists will likely be let down by the lack of technology and big-scale military drama Card is often associated with. The overall approach here is one of a character-driven drama and not one based on intricate plots and Sci-Fi concepts. While this might disappoint some fans, it has a chance of drawing in readers who wouldn't otherwise pick up a Card novel.