Thursday, April 21, 2011

Orson Scott Card: Alvin Journeyman

At last.  With this fourth entry in the "Tales of Alvin Maker," Orson Scott Card's historical fantasy series really enters the Promised Land. "Alvin Journeyman" is, in my opinion, the best novel in the series, and is certainly one of his finest works to date.

"Alvin Journeyman" begins and ends with Calvin Smith, Alvin's younger brother. Because the eldest son had died shortly after Alvin's birth, Calvin is also born with the knack of Making, for he too is the seventh son of a seventh son. Unfortunately, he grows up resentful, angry at being overshadowed by his elder brother, and ultimately runs away from his home in Vigor Church. He makes his way to New Amsterdam (in this universe, "New York" remained in the possession of its original Dutch settlers), then to England, and then to France, working his way into the good graces of Napoleon Bonaparte himself.

During his journey, he briefly encounters an English barrister named Verily Cooper. Verily is without a doubt my favorite character in the Alvin Maker saga. Perhaps it's because he's a lawyer, and an incredibly clever one at that. Perhaps it because of his knack: Verily is able to see the "joints" in things, whether in wood (he is able to construct an airtight barrel, for instance) but more importantly in groups of people. He sees how things fit together, as it were -- he can tell how groups interact, who keeps them together, and how they might be influenced. Of all the knacks given in the saga, Verily's knack is the one I envy the most. Reading these passages is like imaging Dale Carnegie with superpowers -- how to win friends and influence people, indeed!

Alvin himself, driven by his vision of a Crystal City, realizes that the vision would only become a reality with others working and Making alongside him. Therefore he returns to Vigor Church in a vain and abortive effort to teach others the knack of Making. He learns a good deal about his own knack, but is unable to communicate or teach others with any degree of efficiency. It's at this point that he receives a letter from Peggy (formerly his teacher, "Miss Larner") telling him to get out of dodge because the future does not bode well. He ignores her warning, and his plans predictably go awry.

A young girl in his class fantasizes that she is having an affair with Alvin, tells her friend about these daydreams, and Alvin is forced to leave town in ignominy. He returns to Hatrack River, where he is promptly arrested for 'stealing' from his former master, Makepeace. He is thrown in jail and awaits the trial, while his prosecution prepares a much more large-scale effort. Makepeace's suit is funded by Cavil Planter's pro-slavery organization, in retaliation against Alvin's protection of Arthur Stuart in the last novel. The prosecution is even able to hire the brilliant (and Machiavellian) lawyer Daniel Webster as co-counsel.

In the midst of all this, Verily Cooper arrives from England, meets Alvin, and sets to work. The English barrister absolutely dominates the remainder of the novel. While we occasionally see Calvin's activities in France, or the accelerating romance between Peggy and Alvin, Verily remains at the heart of the trial and thus the story. The courtroom scene in which he deconstructs the slave Finders who sought to re-capture Arthur Stuart is brilliance itself. His narration and explanation of the courtroom drama is clear and often clever.

By the end, the Unmaker is vanquished and the forces of evil retreat from Alvin's field of victory. On the other hand, there is still more adventure to be had, and even with the addition of Verily and Peggy to his troupe, Alvin needs to find more allies to make his Crystal City a reality. But, though the saga continues, I'm not sure any sequels could ever equal the excellence of this work, "Alvin Journeyman."

To purchase this book, check out
Alvin Journeyman (Tales of Alvin Maker, Book 4)

To read other reviews from "The Tales of Alvin Maker," check out:
Seventh Son
Red Prophet
Prentice Alvin
Alvin Journeyman
The Crystal City

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