"Prentice Alvin" is the third novel in Orson Scott Card's historical fantasy series "The Tales of Alvin Maker." Having established the alternate-history universe of Alvin's America, and expanded the universe to include the voices of both white settlers and "Red" natives, Card now moves to bring Alvin into maturity within the world he has created. The first novel was about Alvin's realization that he possessed a knack for Making; the second novel gave him a purpose and context in which to use that knack. Here, in the third novel, Alvin finally digs deeper into his knack -- what it is and how to use it.
The novel begins with a vignette of sorts, about a slave plantation in Apalachee. The owner, Cavil Planter, is introduced as "a godly man, a church-going man, a tithepayer." But his wife is sickly and infertile, and Cavil is tormented by the thought that God was punishing him, by denying him a wife and an heir. He goes to the Bible and reads the account of Abraham, who slept with the servant-girl Hagar to produce an heir. It takes a while, but Cavil at length succumbs to the temptation, and (encouraged by the "Unmaker" appearing as an angel of light) ultimately becomes one of those beastly owners who sleeps with every slave-girl on his plantation.
One of these girls escapes shortly after giving birth, sacrificing her own life to get her child as far north as possible. Peggy, the 'torch' from the town of Hatrack River, sees her 'heartfire' from afar and rescues the child. The boy, named Alvin Stuart, is at the heart of the novel.
Following the events of "Red Prophet," Alvin himself leaves Vigor Church to apprentice himself to the blacksmith of Hatrack River, Makepeace. He was abducted the last time he made the trip, but this goes off without a hitch. He had hoped to meet Peggy, but the torch had already left town ahead of him (she secretly hopes to marry Alvin, but sees that if they meet now their marriage would not be a happy one). Over the course of his apprenticeship Alvin begins to grow stronger and more confident on his own (without needing to rely on his knack), while understand that knack better.
Peggy ultimately returns, though disguised as a fairly aloof schoolmarm who winds up instructing Alvin and Arthur Stuart in grammar and other academic pursuits. By the end of the book, Alvin has grown confident enough in his forging skills and Making knack that he attempts to create a 'plow of living gold' as his journeyman piece. It's an interesting passage and an interesting idea, though it struck me as fairly arbitrary. Why make a plow, why turn the iron into gold, and why make it alive? This novel provides no answers (and -- spoiler -- neither does the rest of the series). The golden plow is a classic McGuffin -- essentially a gimmick to drive the plot.
Periodically throughout the novel we return to Cavil Planter, and we soon realize where these snippets of plot are leading. Cavil meets the villainous Reverend Thrower (introduced in the first novel) and forms a partnership to hunt down and return escaped slaves. The men in their employ soon discover Arthur Stuart hiding in Hatrack River, and Peggy and Alvin must find a way to protect him from the long arm of slavery.
On the whole, "Prentice Alvin" struck me more as a series of vignettes than a novel. The episodes in the slave plantations occurs new insight into the region of the Crown Colonies, while Alvin's education is pretty cleverly conveyed. I still find the same limitations as in the previous two entries in the series: these are only hints at a much greater saga, but Card does not yet express himself with the same freedom and almost grandeur of his later writings. As of the third entry, "The Tales of Alvin Maker" is still handicapped by a parochial vision. The series can and will get better, but it is for this reason that I would rate "Prentice Alvin" as quite good but not yet great.
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Prentice Alvin (Tales of Alvin Maker, Book 3)
To read other reviews from "The Tales of Alvin Maker," check out:
The Crystal City