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The Crystal City - The Phantom Librarian
Spewing out too many words since November 2003
The Crystal City
You know, when I first came online, one of the first things I did was review a whole passel of books by Orson Scott Card (darned if I know where those reviews finally ended up), so this is sort of like coming home.

For those of you who haven't been following Card's Tales of Alvin Maker series... um, it may be a bit late to catch up. ;)

Seriously, to explain to random journal readers, Card's fantasy series takes place in an alternate America, where magic works and has changed the history of the continent in many key ways. The Puritans remained in power in England and New England--in both places, hidden knacks are persecuted--and there was never a split. The King of England is in exile in the southern colonies, or Crown Colonies, which have a thriving slave trade. The Middle Colonies created the break-off United States, and western territories are under dispute. The Shawnee prophet, Tenskwa-Tawa, took all the native Americans who didn't want to live as white men across the Mississippi and sent up a permanent fog to prevent crossing.

In this world, a Maker has been born, for the first time in generations. Alvin is the seventh son of a seventh son, and he has a power to create nearly anything, and change nearly anything. It's pretty much a god-like power. He is now married to the torch (a kind of Seer) who saved his life when he was a baby, and her adopted half-Black brother (the son of a runaway, whom Alvin hid by doing his first major bit of Making) travels with him as he searches for a way to build his dream, the Crystal City.

Immediately after Alvin was born, his oldest brother died, so when his parents had another son, Calvin, they turned out to both be the seventh son of a seventh son, with all the brothers living, and Calvin has much of Alvin's power, but chooses to use it in the service of the Unmaker, as often as not.

The Crystal City opens with Alvin in Nueva Barcelona (New Orleans; the Spanish own it here), at the house of Papa Moose and Mama Squirrel, an abolitionist couple who claim that all fifty of the children living in their house (of several races) are their natural children and no one's slaves. Alvin's wife, Peggy, is an Abolitionist, and she has sent him here (she has stayed up north, as she's pregnant)--but her purpose isn't just to help Papa Moose. She's trying to prevent a war between the slaveholding Crown Colonies and the free states. (Alvin, conveniently, has run into Abe Lincoln on his travels.) Because she sees a major battle coming, she decides that she has to stop it, and uses Alvin to cure someone of Yellow Fever... who then goes on to spread it around all of Barcy.

Long story short, Alvin, a group of outcast French citizens, and about five thousand slaves, have to make a break for it. Through a series of Makings, Alvin gets them north, toward what, he doesn't know.

The series had been going a bit downhill, with Card playing around too much in in his world in Alvin Journeyman and just too much unlikely meandering in Heartfire. I'm happy to report that The Crystal City really gets things back on track, as far as the plot goes. The various characters who have been collected on the way are gathering at last, and things are set up for a showdown. The plot hangs together and moves quickly, and the new characters--La Tia, Dead Mary and her mother, even Abe Lincoln himself--are engaging and interesting.

I only have one problem: Alvin Smith (aka, Alvin Maker) irritates me to no end.

And Peggy, who used to be among my favorite female characters in fantasy, is beginning to.

I don't know if this is a function of Card loosely basing Alvin's travels on the travels of Mormon prophet Joseph Smith (very pronounced in this book, of course), making the Mormon Card a bit hesitant to give him real character flaws, but whatever it is, Alvin has not made a really serious moral mistake since Prentice Alvin (book 3; Crystal City is book 6). And then, it was a heat-of-the-moment thing, the murder of a man who'd killed his beloved's mother, a kind and honest woman, because he was trying to take her adopted son from her. He hasn't made a mistake in thought-out morality since BOOK ONE (Seventh Son), when he misused his gift to devil his sisters. He was seven, I believe. Maybe less.

Calvin, meanwhile, who was presented a sweet if jealous child in the first book, hasn't made a right step morally since he muttered, "I don't never wish you dead, Alvin" in Seventh Son... or at least Card goes to a great deal of trouble to establish that any move that might look morally right is either actually selfish at root or ultimately inept, so that Alvin has to save him. (Getting rid of William Henry Harrison before he started a bloody war that everyone could see, for instance, was carefully written to show that Cally was doing it to prove that he had the power to kill, not because he thought about it and agonized about it, and the only time he genuinely tried to be helpful--starting a flood to stop a slave rebellion in Heartfire--he was unable and Alvin had to take over from a distance while running. Couldn't he have just let Cally have that one? Sigh. I keep hoping for Cally. I keep hoping for Peter Wiggin in the Ender books, too.)

I'm not normally an ornery person. I like the good guys and don't really give that much credence to so-and-so having a "dark side" meaning so-and-so is a deeper character than someone who is trying very, very hard to be good. But all through these books, I keep wanting to see Calvin be morally right about something and Alvin be morally wrong, and for there to be no question whatsoever about that.

The problem isn't just Alvin's lack of moral flaws. I can usually take that reasonably well. It's that for the climax to happen, his little group is going to have to be under siege, so bad will has to be built up around them, so that a mob will come. Because the only thing he's done that people might have a legitimate gripe about was a hot-blooded murder that most readers would be sympathetic to (the victim was a Slave Finder about to take a young child away in chains, and who had just shot that child's adoptive mother), the plot has necessitated that every single place he goes, people believe awful things about him... and none of them are true, or have a basis in truth. At first, he's accused of stealing his golden plow (he turned iron into living gold to make it and it will only travel with him), when in fact there was no gold to be stolen. Then a young girl with a crush deliberately gets pregnant by someone else and says it's Alvin's, and he's too chivalrous to call her on it. Now his group of slaves is accused of murdering and pillaging (not a whit) and he himself is constantly accused of witchcraft.

And he does nothing.

Meaning that everyone outside of Alvin's circle of believers has to be seen as stump-dumb or actively evil.

Wouldn't it be more interesting if a good person disagreed with him on a basic point? Or if something he chose and believed in could legitimately be perceived as wrong by other people? Not misunderstood, just disagreed with?

This is very, very irritating. I find myself with Calvin in wishing that someone would knock Alvin off his high horse, but no... Alvin doesn't even have the fault of hubris that's nearly endemic to stories about power. Alvin has no character arc at all.

Peggy, meanwhile, has gone from being a sharp-tongued schoolmarm to being an Earth Mother who is emotionally burdened by her visions but nearly sappy about them. She makes some moral calls that I would consider wrong, but is always forgiven (apparently by the author as well).

All of the people surrounding Alvin hold him in nearly religious awe, but other than that, many are interesting. I adore Dead Mary and La Tia in this book, and Arthur Stuart (Peggy's adopted brother) also grew up quite nicely. Verily Cooper, Alvin's lawyer, is a terrific character. His motivations are a bit murky, but he recognizes their murkiness. The cameos by historical figures are always fun. And the story is interesting. It's not even that I dislike Alvin--if I did, I wouldn't be reading--it's just that the number of negative coincidences around him is starting to become annoying.

Calvin is a character who never seems to grow, but always seems like he's about to. Then he backslides for no readily apparent reason. This is as irritating as Alvin's steadfast inability to make a moral mistake. After Heartfire, in which Calvin at least tried to make a positive contribution to the world, it seemed odd to have him just go back to being a pain. You'd think that, even if he didn't go to Alvin (which would be a tad unbelievable, and I wouldn't want it anyway), he might at least be flailing around with an idea of trying to do the right thing. Instead, he goes to Mexico to help Austin and Bowie take over, only thinking tangentially of Tenskwa-Tawa's major issue with the Mexica (that they derive their magical powers through torture and human sacrifice). There's no indication that he did any pondering between the last book and this one, even to come to the conclusion that he was right in the first place. Again, no character arc, and that's too bad, because frankly, the relationship between these two brothers, who simply adored one another as children but are now divided by jealousy, is much more interesting than any of the other relationships in the book. And I really, really would like to see Cally right about something.

Okay, enough ranting. The basic problem is the lack of character arc for Alvin and Calvin, and we'll leave it there.

Beyond that, the world is as rich as ever, and the politics are growing more complex, as the simple either/ors are being replaced by both/ands, which is always interesting. Card handles his dialect-based narrative with aplomb. The plot is coming together nicely. It's worth a read--don't let my kvetching fool you; I don't waste this much time on books I don't like. I just wanted to like it even more.

I feel a bit...: okay okay

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(Deleted comment)
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: March 6th, 2004 11:35 am (UTC) (Link)
True. I realized that as I wrote it. But "the Jews of medieval Europe" aren't trying to be a protagonist in a series of novels. If I were writing a Jew of medieval Europe as a protagonist, I'd let him make some mistakes sometimes, with the heightened tragedy that any time he does mess up, it comes back on the community.
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