Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Orson Scott Card: Heartfire

"Heartfire" is the fifth novel in the "Tales of Alvin Maker." As I mentioned previously, I hold the fourth entry, "Alvin Journeyman," to be the highlight of Orson Scott Card's historical fantasy series. I also mentioned that I consider it superior because the story features Verily Cooper, an English barrister with the best 'knack' in the series. If this is true, then "Heartfire" is proof positive that you really can't have too much of a good thing.

"Heartfire" is my second favorite work in the "Alvin Maker" set, for the same reasons as my favorite. The primary plot features Alvin and Verily Cooper recruiting new members to their jolly band of misfits from the unlikeliest of places: New England, one of the last holdovers of the Puritan anti-witch laws that had practically outlawed the use of knacks. Along the way, they encounter the young orphan Purity, who grew up with a powerful knack for sensing others' feelings, but with an intense fear that she will suffer the same fate as her parents and condemned as a witch.

Partly in desperation, Purity reports the knack-wielding band to the authorities, only to find herself arrested along with them for even witnessing the alleged "witches' sabbath." Verily launches himself into preparations for the trial, both to end the anti-witching laws, and to save and woo Purity. The courtroom drama occupies the bulk of the novel, and features the witcher Michael Quill as prosecutor, and an elderly John Adams (former governor of New England) as the presiding judge.

On the other end of the American coast, we read of Peggy's journey to the Crown Colonies, and her work for the abolitionist cause in the American South. Her adventures are decidedly less thrilling, though there are a few memorable scenes between her and Calvin, the estranged brother and fellow maker of Peggy's husband Alvin. The crisis in this relates to Calvin losing his 'doodlebug' in a hexed sack filled with the 'heartfires' of newly arrived African-American slaves. Admittedly, the above sentence doesn't make a lot of sense, but that's not my fault.

On the whole, the book is quite good, though Peggy's story is only decent in comparison with the brilliance of the courtroom drama. Card excels at portraying the strategic interaction of people, which comes out best in legal settings. On the other hand, the final resolution of the drama managed to be both hackneyed and ad hoc, so I wasn't enthused. The case essentially gets thrown out for lack of merit, when the judge suddenly discovers a different legal argument that produces the same result (nullifying the witching laws). It's a clever method, but still a travesty of justice.

Card continues to develop his narrative craft and bring out his particular gifts for storytelling. I think "Heartfire" suffers in comparison to his brilliant early work like "Ender's Game" and his more mature storytelling style exhibited in recent works like "The Lost Gate." It may not be his best work, but it's still well worth reading.

To purchase this book, check out Amazon.com:
Heartfire (Tales of Alvin Maker, Book 5)

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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