Once the families were gods of power, the pantheons of the Scandinavians, Greeks and Hindus; the Persians, Gauls and Hittites; the Latins and the Goths. But all the gates are long gone, all closed by the master gatemage Loki,1400 years ago. No longer can the families move instantaneously between Earth and Westil so rejuvenating their powers. In consequence, their blood has thinned; powers waned even as mutual enmity has grown. Their pact forbids the birth of a new gatemage for fear the successful family will re-open a Great Gate to Westil and restore that family’s powers, soon to be followed by the utter enslavement of all the rest. We, the drowther inhabitants of earth, are meanwhile oblivious.

The Lost Gate starts in West Virginia in the family compound of the highly-inbred North family, descendants of Odin and Frigg, Thor and Loki. They are now reduced to hillbilly status, practitioners of minor talent such as MeadowFriends, Clawbrothers and RockBrothers with low-grade power over plants, animals and the natural environment. Danny North, our twelve-year old hero can’t even manage that. He’s a drekka, a child with no discernible talents at all, and therefore a bullied child.

Of course it soon turns out that Danny is no such thing: he’s the first gatemage to be born for a thousand years and has an instinctive knack for making gates from here to there, ideal for spying and escaping. He’s never heard of gatemagery, it’s a forbidden subject, but somehow he knows enough to keep quiet about his talent. Soon of course he is revealed and it turns out that at least some of his elders and betters had a pretty good idea. You’re needed, he’s told, to restore the family’s fortunes. But if you stay here we’ll have to kill you: it’s the pact. So go lose yourself in greater America amongst the drowthers, come of age and make a Great Gate to Westil. Then come back and restore your family’s fortunes. Danny takes the hint and clears off, but he’s by no means signed up to the family’s agenda. We follow Danny through varied adventures: shoplifter, burglar, high-school student. He meets an assortment of people who by some magic propel him on his quest.

In a parallel narrative set on Westil itself, we follow the doings of the court in the medieval northern land of Iceway, where an amnesiac gatemage who has been locked away for hundreds of years comes to the castle and is soon intervening in royal affairs. The stories unfold in separate chapters until they explosively combine in a final climax. Since “The Lost Gate” is book one of a trilogy, there is plenty left unresolved for the following volumes.

What are we told about gatemages? They are “Liars, tricksters, deceivers. That’s what gatemages are. Along with being healers, guides, interpreters, ambassadors.” (p. 54) – I guess we all remember the trickster Loki. And here is the dilemma for Orson Scott Card. He is an immensely moral writer. His heroes are smart loners: serious , conscientious and compassionate. They are not bad people. So while Card has to have gatemage Danny do bad things (he steals, he lies, he plays pranks) he fails to give him a proper Loki-like character. Inside Danny we recognise familiar Ender trying to get out. The result is that when Danny is behaving like Loki, one seeks in vain for a plausible psychological motivation.

Make no mistake, Card’s attributes of warmth, empathy and intelligence make this book a joy to read: engaging and engrossing. The characters are real and frequently funny, the dialogue is witty and sharp. As he explains in his afterword, the author has been building the back-story for this trilogy since 1977 and such investment is evident throughout. It’s just … well, Orson, your people are too damn nice! It’s time to leave your comfort zone and go to a darker place. You’re 59 years old; you are allowed to write about older people and adult themes. There’s still time in volumes two and three!

Note: Card tells us that Loki closed all the gates in 632 AD. If you google that date you will find the most significant event was the death of the prophet Muhammad.  Later there is a tantalising reference to “The people who follow the Semitic gods. Jews, Christians, Muslims. The non-Westilians.” (p. 247). But that’s all the explanation you’re going to get in this volume.