Duplex – Orson Scott Card

Duplex: A Micropowers Novel by Orson Scott Card
Genres: Blackstone Publishing
Buy on Amazon

Ryan wakes up to find his contractor dad building walls to turn their big old house into a duplex. The family that moves into the other side includes Bizzy Horvat, the pretty girl he has a crush on at school. Bizzy claims her mother is a witch with the power to curse people with clumsiness or, in Bizzy’s case, astonishing beauty.
When a bee gets caught in Bizzy’s hair, Ryan acts so quickly and radically to save her from getting stung that he attracts the attention of a group of micropotents — people with micropowers. He soon realizes that Bizzy and her mother also have such powers. It becomes Ryan’s job, with the help of the other micropotents, to protect the Horvats from a group of witch hunters from their native country, who are determined to kill Bizzy, her mother, and all the other “witches” — micropotents — who have gathered to protect them

My experience with Orson Scott Card up to this point had only been through his classic Ender’s Game saga. I wasn’t sure what to expect from him outside of that genre and those characters and wasn’t at all prepared for what I found in Duplex. All of the OSC tropes are there: hyper-intelligent kid, expository dialogue that doubles as a moral lecture to the reader, and a sarcasm that wavers between smarmy and witty. At his best, Card utilizes these constant components to his benefit. At his worst, it results in trite and clunky prose that breathes an aura of i-am-really-smart.

Duplex mostly sits between those extremes, though it hovers nearer to the lower end. I never could figure out who Card’s target audience was supposed to be. It’s a middle grade level plot worthy of a Disney Channel Original Movie, is allegedly written for a YA audience, and has teenage characters who in no way talk like teenagers. Ryan is just a normal kid with a normal life until his parents split up and their big house is literally split up to make the titular duplex. Ryan’s dad moves out and Bizzy’s family moves in.

Bizzy and Ryan become fast friends and Bizzy reveals to Ryan that her mom is a witch who can curse people with clumsiness—or, in Bizzy’s case—with astonishing beauty. Card does a pretty terrible job of explaining how this all works. Ryan seems to be the only person immune to Bizzy’s beauty, which prevents her from making friends as it makes the girls jealous and boys tongue-tied (what even.). It’s a cute, if dorky story that just keeps going on and on, interrupted only by scenes that are supposed to explain 1) how poor Ryan’s family is and 2) how much of a jerk his parents are.

I’m pretty sure that the second point was supposed to be that Ryan’s dad is tough-love and hard-work, but there’s an extended scene with him lambasting Ryan for laziness (though it’s not his fault entirely, because all kids are lazy), refusing to give him a job because he won’t work hard, excoriating him for not doing more chores, and projecting a smarmy know-it-all-ness that made me certain that Card’s intention was to portray him as an over-the-top villain. Nope. Dad’s the good guy. It’s Mom who got a secret abortion and played it off as a miscarriage and that secret coming out is what led to the family’s separation. (And that bombshell is just sort of dropped in from left field and never explored, either).

Anyway, the story is actually about how Ryan learns that he has superpowers when he cuts off his sister’s hair and puts a bee in his mouth. I’m not even kidding. A bee gets tangled in his sister’s hair and stings her. Ryan, so very quickly, grabs scissors and cuts the hair off to #freethebee and flicks the stinger out of sister’s scalp. She goes into anaphylactic shock and almost dies, but the doctors say she would have died if Ryan hadn’t acted so quickly. Further, another bee almost flies into Bizzy’s hair, but Ryan valiantly bats it away and then puts it in his mouth before blowing it away from his friend. I am not making any of this up.

As it would turn out, such a feat is not the result of anything natural. Ryan has a superpower…well, a micropower. Bizzy does, too. So does her mom. And so do a group of people who are banding together to study their weird and mostly useless powers. Of course, the micropowers turn out not to be useless and save them from the Slovenian terrorists trying to kidnap Bizzy.

I’ll give Card this: while I was reading the book, I wanted to know what happened next. I liked Bizzy and Ryan. There was potential here. Despite all of the wild things above, he had me invested in the story. But, wow, was this book something. Outside of Bizzy and Ryan, Card fails to develop any of his characters at all. The dialogue is clunky. The pacing is uneven. The action is anemic (until the final, or should I say only, battle).

My experience with Duplex could be summarized by this passage from the book:

“You forget what an incredible stud by little brother is,” said Bizzy. “I think the only thing wrong when he kisses girls is that they can’t stop squealing in excitement, which means that they’re always blowing down his throat, which makes a horrible burping sound.”

“Seriously?” asked Ryan.

She clamped her mouth over his and squealed. The air she expelled made a burping sound going down his throat. He pulled away from the kiss. “You have now officially ruined kissing,” he said.

Except in my version, I’m Ryan, Orson Scott Card is Bizzy, and the squealing is this book being shoved down my throat. It’s officially ruined Orson Scott Card books for me.