It's been five years since the last installment in this series, which is a long time without fuel to maintain the energy and enthusiasm this series originally engendered. As an alternate history where people have 'knacks' for doing things, from repairing barrels and bones to seeing the future, its fire came from its ideological underpinnings, of the fight between those who build and those who destroy, of machine versus nature, of the rights of all to be self-directing autonomous individuals versus the cultural assumption that some are better than others, and those inferior beings are suited only for slavery. While much of this underpinning is highly relevant to this latest installment, it does not seem to bring with it the deep emotional involvement that would have made this story come alive.
Alvin Maker is the prime mover here, a man conflicted between his incredible abilities and the knowledge that regardless of how much he builds, however much good he can accomplish in the world, the Unmaker will be following right behind, tearing down all he can accomplish. Alvin's dream of a city built by Makers seems further and further off, as he becomes embroiled in actions to save many of the slaves and poor of the city of Nueva Barcelona (New Orleans) from both yellow fever (that he unwittingly helped to spread) and its other bigoted and superstitious citizens. Almost as a side plot, his brother Calvin becomes embroiled in a foray by Steve Austin and Jim Bowie to conquer the Mexica, with Calvin's typical disregard for the consequences or moral rightness of his actions.
The depiction of the historical characters that dot this novel, from Abe Lincoln to Bowie, is definitely problematic. All of them seem to have no depth, all are portrayed with only the sheen of their legendary characteristics, from Abe's honesty to Bowie's fighting drive, with no signs of other human foibles that would have made these stick-figures into something real. The plot itself is reasonable, a modern alternate version of Exodus with Alvin as Moses, and its final resolution points the way towards where this series may ultimately be headed. But I found as I was reading that I was looking for something more concrete to the action; too little description, not enough supporting details, an almost dreamlike feel to what could have been a very gritty slice of life under very unappetizing conditions.
While Card has a long list of those people who helped check this manuscript for continuity errors with earlier volumes, and obviously their efforts did help eliminate most of those kinds of problems, I did find it a little amusing that the maps on the end papers clearly show Alvin's Crystal City located on the wrong side of the Mississippi river.
Card does manage to make most of his moral points without clobbering you over the head with them, and some of the final section shows at least a willingness to concede that not all that is man-made is bad or that all that is nature-derived is good. But the fire that drove the earlier books, of their implied Great War between good and evil, is not here. Clearly, Card is planning at least one more book in this set, where perhaps the anticipated and long delayed war against slavery will combine with Alvin's dream of a better world to form a heart-wrenching finale. I do hope so.
--- Reviewed by Patrick Shepherd (hyperpat)
I had to go back and see how long it had been since Uncle Orson had published the last volume in the Tales of Alvin Maker, but I waited until after I read Book 6, "The Crystal City." It had been about five years, but without ever going back and jogging my memory I was able to pick up the narrative thread in the ongoing story. Besides, I was encouraged by both the title and the cover art for this novel that Alvin was finally going to take that golden plough out of his poke and finally lay the ground for his city, and in that regard I am not disappointed. However, this is still not the climax of the tale.
Orson Scott Card's Tales of Alvin Maker series is set in an alternative America where some people are born with knacks, a magical ability that is both a great gift and a deep burden. Alvin, the seventh son of a seventh son, is a "maker," who can make things and fix things, using his doodlebug to get a sense of what needs to be done. After the death of his newborn son, Alvin is persuaded by his wife, Peggy (a "torch," who can see the various paths into the future that a life might take), to go to Barcy (the New Orleans of this world), and so he travels down the Mizzizippy with young Arthur Stuart on a flatboat with Abe Lincoln and his friend Coz.
This matters because while Alvin Maker has his dream of the Crystal City, Peggy is concerned with preventing the great war that she sees coming over the issues of slavery. In this America the United States is put one of several "countries" competing for the North American continent. The south consists of Crown Colonies, Spain controls Florida and Nueva Barcelona (Louisiana), and the French still have Canada. Meanwhile, the descendants of the Aztecs are still performing human sacrifices in Mexica and Alvin's friend, Tenskwa-Tawa, the Red Prophet, controls the lands to the west of the Mizzippy. Beyond the Hio Territory where Alvin was born in Hatrack River, the Wobbish Territory where Vigor Church and Carthage City can be found, and even beyond the Noisy River Territory, Alvin needs to find a place for his Crystal City. Because when he saves a single life in Barcy, the act changes everything and forces a series of issues. The establishment of the Crystal City is obviously a major moment in the series, but clearly it is not the big payoff.
As always, it is interesting to see Uncle Orson's take on some of the figures of American's history. If he liked John Adams, he likes Abraham Lincoln any more. However, Stephen Austin and Jim Bowie do not fare well, and Alvin has to worry about the latter almost as much as he does about his younger brother Calvin. I know there are those who want to read these stories as a religious allegory, but I have enjoyed taking the narrative at face value and I remain ignorant enough of the major tenets of Mormon theology so that I do not see anything more here than the American ideal dressed up in alternative clothing. However, I find it hard to believe that there is only one volume left in the series, because there seem to be too many threads left to weave together.