Besides the science-fiction saga of the "Ender's Game" universe, Orson Scott Card is probably best known as the creator of the historical fiction fantasy, "The Tales of Alvin Maker." The series presents an alternate history of colonial and post-Revolutionary America, in the style of a vintage American "tall tale." This America is far removed from the America we know, however, though all the differences can be reduced to a single cause. In this America, folk magic is real.
In the world of Alvin Maker, each person has a unique gift, a "knack," that endows them with preternatural abilities. Sometimes these specialized talents are mundane, such as a knack for fog or a knack for beetles. Others, though, can be more useful: a dowser has a knack for finding water, while a spark can cause fire from afar. The rarest and most powerful of gifts, however, is the knack of Making: an all-encompassing gift that enables a person to 'bend' nature to their will.
"Seventh Son" begins with a young girl, Peggy, who is a torch: a rare specialization that enables her to see others' "heartfires" -- who they are, where they are, and who they will become. When a pioneer family arrives in town with a woman in labor, she is called to help the village midwife. She soon realizes this birth is different than most: for this will be the seventh son of a seventh son, an extraordinarily powerful combination often associated with extraordinarily powerful knacks. She sees that her own future is closely tied to this boy. She also sees that this boy already won himself a fearsome enemy: the Unmaker, a semi-mystical Satanic figure who is the incarnation of destruction.
The rest of the novel treats Alvin's youth, his life until he turns eleven. Peggy had saved a piece of Alvin's birth-caul, which she uses ritually to protect Alvin from the Unmaker's schemes. However, she cannot protect him from the Reverend Thrower, a fanatical minister who believes knacks are evil and sees Satan around every corner (except for when Satan actually appears as an angel of light). Thrower is seduced into a conspiracy against Alvin Jr., who is still too young to guard himself against attack.
The brief narrative of "Seventh Son" draws from a far richer back-story, of meta-politics only hinted at through this narrative. In this America, there are four semi-independent states. The "Crown Colonies" (of the original Southern colonies) is governed by a monarch, King Arthur Stuart; the "United States" (extending from Maryland to New York to the southern side of the St. Lawrence River) is a democratic republic founded by Ben Franklin, himself rumored to be a Maker; "Apalachee" is a frontier state running from eastern Tennessee to West Virginia, governed by Tom Jefferson; and "New England" is a theocracy, comprised of Puritans under governor John Adams.
At times, the novel does succumb to the laziest of historical fiction tropes, in its insistence of mentioning every remotely memorable figure from real American history. However, as an re-creation of an alternate colonial America, I still found it to be thoroughly impressive. On the whole, "Seventh Son" is a short read with a decidedly parochial focus, which points to the far greater saga that lies ahead.
To purchase this book, check out Amazon.com:
Seventh Son (Tales of Alvin Maker, Book 1)
To read other reviews from "The Tales of Alvin Maker," check out:
The Crystal City