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.
Using the lore and the folk-magic of the men and women who settled North America, Orson Scott Card has created an alternate world where magic works, and where that magic has colored the entire history of the colonies. Charms and beseechings, hexes and potions, all have a place in the lives of the people of this world. Dowsers find water, the second sight warns of dangers to come, and a torch can read a person’s future—or their heart.
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 very special man indeed. He’s a Maker; he has the knack of understanding how things are put together, how to create them, repair them, keep them whole, or tear them down. He can heal hearts as well as bones, he can calm the waters or blow up a storm. And he can teach his knack to others, to the measure of their own talent.
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.
But Nueva Barcelona is about to experience a yellow fever plague, and Alvin’s efforts to protect his friends by keeping them healthy will create more danger than he could ever have suspected. And in saving the poor people of the city, Alvin will be put to the greatest test of his life—a test that will draw on all his power.
He has been asked to behave like Moses and move all the people from the poor French colonies and from the slave and freed slave quarters over the river, to Red-folk lands.
Alvin needs to turn to his old friend Tenskwa-Tawa, the Red Prophet who controls the lands to the west of the Mizzippy for help in escaping the Plague.
He encounters his jealous little brother Calvin, a Maker for fun, and a few other interesting characters along the way.
As you can tell by the title, Alvin finally begins his Crystal City (and not surprisingly, since much in this series parallels Latter Day Saints beliefs, it seems to be on the site of Nauvoo, Illinois.)
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.