OR: Alvin Journeyman

A review that originally appeared in The Third Alternative #27:-

Orson Scott Card

Orbit pb, 400pp, £6.99

Renewed interest in Card on this side of the Atlantic has seen publishers turning to his back catalogue, and so we have the first UK publication of this novel from 1995, the fourth in his Alvin Maker series (the others have been reissued and are highly recommended).

The series is marketed as Fantasy, but a case can be made for it as SF as the books are set in the early 1800s in an alternate world where history has taken a different turn. A Lord Protector governs England, while a Stuart King in exile rules the Crown Colonies. In America it’s the great age of the frontiersman. Some states have successfully broken away from European rule, but large areas remain under the yoke of the English, Spanish, and French. The Indian nations, many of them Christianised and using technology that’s filtered through from Europe, have retreated to the west of the Mississippi and drawn a line that the whites cross at their peril. Most significantly this is a world in which magic works, with many people possessing special talents, referred to as knacks.

The seventh son of a seventh son. Alvin is the typical Card hero, a messianic figure with the power of a Maker, which Alvin must learn to use wisely and well before he can proceed to forge a reality from his vision of the Crystal City, a place where all races can live in harmony. Opposed to Alvin is the Unmaker, an evil elemental being who preys on human weakness and folly. In this particular book Alvin is imprisoned in the town of Hatrack River, accused of theft and other crimes by tools of the Unmaker, and must win his case in a court of law. Elsewhere the struggle against the slave trade continues and Alvin’s younger, resentful brother Calvin travels to Europe to learn how to use his own talent from the dictator Napoleon, paving the way for a climactic confrontation in some future volume.

With the possible exception of the Ender saga these books contain Card’s best work and Alvin Journeyman is no exception. Its setting and plot are like a breath of fresh air in the orc cluttered and sword lined corridors of Fantasy. The alternate world is fleshed out with details that intrigue and delight the reader, Card’s homespun tone of voice conveying perfectly the feel and flavour of the place, while in a stroke of pure genius Card sets the book’s greatest passage of arms in a courtroom, the sudden twists and turns of fortune more gripping than anything to be found in the pages of Grisham. Card is that special thing, a natural storyteller, one of those rare talents who can hold the reader’s attention even on those occasions when not very much appears to be happening. And, as ever with this author, what comes through loud and clear is the compassion that he feels for his characters, understanding of their failings and shortcomings, with redemption always an option. Card writes from a religious bias, but it’s a faith in people that informs all his work. Stop me! I think I’m in love.

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