Most historical fantasies are grounded in a mythic view of medieval Europe, involving sweeping romances with princesses and castles. In his later novel Enchantment, Orson Scott Card deliberately stepped outside this fairy-tale tradition to craft a fantasy-romance grounded in Eastern European history and culture. But this was not his first attempt. His early series, "The Tales of Alvin Maker," also sought to create a unique historical fantasy, rooted not in Europe but in America. In these novels Orson Scott Card has hybridized the fairy tale and the tall tale, and made a legitimately and uniquely American fantasy universe.
The first novel, Seventh Son, depicts the setting (an alternate-universe American frontier) and introduces the main character, Alvin Smith, who discovers in his childhood that he possesses a startling powerful 'knack' (magical ability) for Making. Its sequel, Red Prophet, constructed a broader setting and the meta-narrative for the whole series, particularly emphasizing the ongoing conflict between the white settlers and the native population and Alvin's future role in resolving it. The third novel, Prentice Alvin, depicts the 'training' phase in our hero's journey, as he learns to use his knack and starts gathering allies to help in his task. The fourth novel, Alvin Journeyman, resolves some of the residual conflicts and villains from past novels and introduces the main nemesis: Alvin's own brother, who is himself a Maker. The fifth novel, Heartfire, shows how Alvin and his wife Peggy use their knacks to effect social change in New England and the Crown Colonies, and how Alvin's brother is reintroduced into their lives.
Finally, in this, the sixth and most recent entry, Orson Scott Card finally returns to the meta-narrative of the series hinted at in "Red Prophet" -- the construction of "The Crystal City." The action begins with Alvin and his companions in New Orleans in modern-day Louisiana (though in this world it is named "Barcy" in the Spanish province of Neuva Barcelona). Alvin begins to attract a crowd, thanks to his knack for miracle-making. Unfortunately, in his desire to help someone, he accidentally starts an outbreak of Yellow Fever and is forced to leave the city with a large retinue of stragglers.
There's an interesting side note in this first chapter: Alvin's wife Peggy is a torch, who is generally able to see the future. She knows that the outbreak of Yellow Fever is necessary to both lead him to the Crystal City and to prevent the outbreak of the Civil War. But she doesn't tell Alvin that his actions would cause the Yellow Fever, and feels some regret that she didn't warn him. This passage hints at a much broader theological debate on the problem of evil and divine foreknowledge, though that is not Card's focus.
At any rate, Alvin begins to journey north along the Mizzippy river with a motley crew of personal friends and total strangers. The latter category includes a fairly large population of 'blacks' and 'reds,' so their band is treated with considerable suspicion and contempt throughout their wanderings. After some wanderings, Alvin and the gang cross the Mizzippy (by a Moses-esque 'parting' of the water) and arrive at the location of the future Crystal City. Comparing to a map of the actual United States, it appears this magical city is somewhere near Cedar Rapids, Iowa.
There are a number of other subplots. Arthur Stuart meets and falls in love with Marie, a young lady of Barcy who has a knack for foreseeing sickness and death. Verily Cooper travels to Springfield and meets a young Abe Lincoln, who is depicted as a folksy lawyer with the gift of gab (literally -- he has a knack for storytelling). Alvin's brother falls in with Jim Bowie, Steve Austin, and an American military force sent to annex Mexican territory. Tenska-Tawa (the eponymous Red Prophet of the earlier novel) warns Alvin that the expedition will fail and that Mexico City will be destroyed by volcanic eruption, like ancient Pompey. Arthur Stuart travels by greensong to warn the soldiers and bring them out, and Calvin only barely survives. And lastly, in the concluding chapters of the novel, Alvin and his followers begin construction on the Crystal City.
This novel was a definite let-down, especially on the tail end of "Alvin Journeyman" and "Heartfire." Verily Cooper's unrequited love for Purity (developed in "Heartfire") seems suddenly reversed, and the subject is mostly dropped with hardly a second glance. Peggy's abolitionist work is curtailed severely by her pregnancy, and her involvement in this novel is rather minimal. The subplot in Mexica feels rather out of place, while the open-ended resolution of the conflict between Alvin and his brother is disappointing. Most appalling are the scenes involving the 'plow of living gold." This is the McGuffin of the series, central to the plots of both "Prentice Alvin" and "Alvin Journeyman" though in an entirely passive role. Yet when it is finally activated in this story, the plow has a single function: it irrigates the meadow beneath a spring, preparing the land for farming. The plow is highlighted in all of six pages, without making a single unique contribution to Alvin's work. It's a rather staggering disappointment.
Reportedly Orson Scott Card is preparing for a seventh (and presumably final) entry in the series, "Alvin Maker." Hopefully that novel will address some of the oversights in this one, and address the underlying tensions that do not burn but only simmer in this novel. "The Crystal City" is still a novel by Orson Scott Card, and has such demonstrates a good deal of literary merit. If I were new to his works, I would still recommend this work. But it suffers in comparison to his classic works, not to mention the better entries in this series.
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The Crystal City (The Tales of Alvin Maker, Book 6)
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The Crystal City