Saturday, April 16, 2011

Orson Scott Card: Red Prophet

"Red Prophet" is the second installment of Orson Scott Card's historical fiction fantasy series, "The Tales of Alvin Maker." Its immediate predecessor, "Seventh Son," established the story's setting in an alternate-reality early America in which folk magic is real. "Seventh Son" mostly focused on the frontier territories of Hio and Wobbish, as the white settlers begin to scratch out a life and a living in the new country. "Red Prophet" expands on this universe, with special emphasis on the native "Red" population.

The story begins with a sort of vignette set in Carthage City, the capital of Wobbish Territory. The river trader Hooch has returned to town with another shipment of whiskey, when he is caught in a contest of wills between the self-appointed "Governor" Bill Harrison and the self-aggrandizing Apalachee lawyer Andrew Jackson. The story also introduces us, parenthetically, to the two major Indian characters of the novel, the noble Ta-Kumsaw and his sadly drunken brother Lolla-Wossiky.

By the end of the vignette, Hooch is dead, Harrison has fomented a plan to destroy the Red population once and for all, and Lolla-Wossiky is on the run, having stolen a precious barrel of whiskey. It is here that we realize that the entire narrative is in fact a ret-con, for Lolla-Wossiky is in fact the mysterious "Shining Man" who appears semi-randomly to Alvin Junior in the previous novel. This encounter is pivotal for both of them: Alvin swears that he would never use his knack for "Making" for his own benefit, while Lolla-Wossiky is cured of the despair that had driven him to drink. Now rejuvenated (one might even say, redeemed) Lolla-Wossiky becomes the Prophet, Tenska-Tawa, a leader for the Reds.

The remainder of the story concentrates on the machinations of the genocide-conniving Bill Harrison, and the contest of wills between Tenska-Tawa (who advocates non-violent resistance) and his brother Ta-Kumsaw (who favors a more violent approach). Alvin Junior, kidnapped by agents of Harrison but rescued by Ta-Kumsaw, is caught in the middle.

On the one hand, this book is generally considered superior to the original, and with good reason. The flow of the narrative is more cohesive, the tension of the story more gripping, the atmosphere darker, and the new characters are quite distinctive. As a sequel, it lives up to the potential of the original, and drives us forward to the new chapters of the saga -- it is in this book that Alvin first sees the vision of the "Crystal City" that would become his life's work (for now, it functions as a sort of MacGuffin, but that's understandable).

On the other hand, this book has a number of weaknesses. For one, Bill Harrison is underdeveloped as a character. Card's stories work because we understand (and can empathize) with the motivations and actions of each of his characters, including the major antagonists. I was disappointed to see him resort to such a typical foil for his band of plucky underdogs as 'evil conniving arch-nemesis in position of absolute power.'

For another, I really wonder about some of his narrative choices. It's clear early on that there is an understanding between Alvin Junior and Tenska-Tawa (the "Shining Man"), and that their connection is the centerpoint around which the novel turns. Yet Card sticks Alvin with the other brother, the militaristic Ta-Kumsaw, as he travels village-to-village along the American frontier. Initially, this seems necessary to introduce Alvin to the art of 'greensong' (swift forest travel, for lack of a better definition). But Alvin's mastery of greensong is untaught and almost instantaneous, taking even Ta-Kumsaw by surprise. In the end, the unlikely partnership of Alvin and Ta-Kumsaw seems to have been necessitated by a third-act plot device that functions like a deus ex machina and reads like an overt moral allegory. I would object to the sudden reintroduction of Taleswapper for the reason.

None of this is to say that the book isn't good. It is, and I can say that those who enjoy Card's writing elsewhere will almost certainly enjoy this book. I just find the book's deficiencies to be more noteworthy. "The Tales of Alvin Maker" don't merely reveal an alternate world which he created. They also reveal Card's developing sense of story, which he puts to full use in his later writings. In this book and this series, Card is coming into his own as an author.

To purchase this book, check out
Red Prophet (Tales of Alvin Maker, Book 2)

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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