The Chronicles of Alvin Maker by Orson Scott Card

First, let me say that OSC is one of my favorite authors because of the Ender series. The premise is incredible, the science fiction genre is a favorite of mine, the writing is well paced and engaging, and the conclusion is satisfying. I have yet to decide whether the difference in my own opinion between the Ender series and the Alvin Maker series is in the writing itself or in the fact that I read one and listened to the other on audio book.

The Chronicles of Alvin Maker begins with the birth of our hero. We’re introduced to the five year old Peggy Guester, a torch who can see people’s heart fires, their life force or soul, and potential futures as they change with decisions. She sees a large family crossing a river that is very suddenly in flood and she sends her father and several other townspeople to rescue the family. Unfortunately the oldest son dies in the process of saving his heavily pregnant mother from a huge tree trunk in the current but the rest of the family is saved and taken to Peggy’s home, the local inn. Alvin is born and Peggy is present for the birth, their fates forever entwined. As Alvin’s family continues in their westward travels, toward Ohio country, Peggy can see Alvin’s ‘heartfire’ and rescues him multiple times, using the power of some of the placenta she saved from his birth. The reason he has so much power is that his oldest brother, who died in the flood, didn’t actually die until Alvin was actually born, so he is a seventh son of a seventh son. You see, this whole story is set in a pioneer America in which magic is real. Different races harness magic in different ways, but it is real and being the seventh son of a seventh son confers onto little Alvin some serious powers.

Alvin grows up, his evil nemesis “The Unmaker” following him all the time, trying to kill him using water, the most corrosive of the four elements. He uses his power in childish ways as a child but a ‘Red Man’, a Native American, appears to Alvin in a vision as part of the man’s spirit quest and admonishes the child to only use his powers for good. A preacher with envy in his heart is visited by the Unmaker and tried to kill little Alvin at one point but is foiled by Peggy’s use of Alvin’s powers. She is, as always, watching out for him.

In the second book, Alvin goes away from home and meets up with a prominent Red Man, traveling the land recruiting other Reds for either a rebellion or a mass exodus. The man’s brother is the same man who appeared to Alvin as a vision and is considered a prophet. Between the two, alongside the machinations of a powerful white governor from the south, they orchestrate a massacre by whites of reds that begins the Reds’ exodus to the lands west of the ‘Mizzippy’. Alvin learns how to heal physical trauma in a person even near death, walk in the way of the Red Man (silently, quickly, listening to the music of the earth moving together as one), and forges ties between red and white people. All before he is 11 years old. Seriously. He also walks on water and has a vision of a city made of crystal that he’s supposed to make. Because he’s a maker. Whatever.

In the third book, he becomes an apprentice blacksmith and gets involved with the abolitionist movement He returns to where his big brother died and where a corrupt blacksmith is willing to take him on as an apprentice. It’s also where Peggy lives but she runs away the day before he arrives because she can see the future and only her leaving creates futures in which Alvin actually falls in love with her instead of marrying her out of duty. Or something. (It starts getting a bit absurd at this point but I’m invested in the story so I continue). The same day Alvin arrives and Peggy leaves, an escaped slave, raped by her white master under the influence of the Unmaker, brings herself and her baby to the Peggy’s town using black magic. The effort she used to escape kills her and Peggy’s mother adopts the half black baby and names him after a contemporary king. As a joke. Alvin works hard, learns well, does even better work than the master blacksmith, and also befriends the little boy. Meanwhile, Peggy runs away and lives with a woman her father cheated with years ago (she knows who, where, why, and how because heart fires and stuff. Whatever.) to learn how to be a real lady. Once she’s learned that she goes to college to learn how to be a school teacher and returns in disguise to her hometown. She teaches the little boy and Alvin, privately, because that’s the real reason she came back to her hometown. There is controversy over her teaching the half black boy because racism. Some slave trackers come to town to find the little boy and Alvin helps rescue him. He transforms the little boy’s genes in order to render the tracking magic the slave trackers use useless and baptizes him (symbolic much?) to wash away any leftover skin cells, etc. The slave trackers return to where they last saw the boy, one gets shot by Peggy’s mom, the other shoots Peggy’s mom, Peggy freaks out, reveals herself to Alvin, they’re in love, blah blah blah, Alvin kills the other slaver, they all run away and live happily ever after. Oh, also, Alvin makes a magic gold plow that is alive and in order to do so he climbs in the forge fire and basically burns to death but then heals himself and also changes the atomic nature of iron to turn it into gold in the fist place. My skepticism is full bore at this point but I NEED to know what happens next!

In the fourth book, Alvin and the little half black boy go back home to live with his family as journeyman blacksmith and friend. He starts trying to teach people how to understand atoms and cells but most people pretty much can’t. His little brother, also a seventh son of a seventh son because the oldest died before he was born, is a little shit and behaves shittily. He has similar powers to Alvin but has no scruples and is basically just a conceited, insecure, braggy little shit. Some stupid little girl has a crush on Alvin, spreads rumors, and drives him out of town so he goes wandering with the half black boy. They go back to where he was an apprentice and the corrupt blacksmith has claimed the golden plow is actually made out of gold the blacksmith had from family or something. There’s jail and a trial but Alvin can bend metal like wet clay so it’s not really in danger, it’s just another way to show how particularly wholesome Alvin is. He is acquitted and keeps wandering, hoping to find some inspiration. His little brother wanders around also, being a little shit and getting into trouble, lying and drinking and using his powers for petty shit. Peggy and Alvin are in love and get married. They want to stop slavery but it’s not that easy. Stuff happens. It’s not that important or interesting.

In book five, Peggy stirs up unrest in the slave south while Alvin travels New England where magic is illegal. He gets accused of witchcraft, his little shit of a brother gets in trouble in the same city his wife is in, he leaves the witch trial by literally peeling his shackles off and goes to rescue his wife, the trial gets fucked up in a good way (read, no more witch trials) by the judge, he saves the day and literally creates a bridge over a lake using his blood, leads his people to the promised land, figures out how to create the crystal city, and his little brother, literally restored to health from being a fucking zombie, continues to be a little shit. Also, they go to Mexico to win a war but the other reds light up a volcano. What the hell is even happening at this point?!?!!

Obviously, summing up some half dozen books (I think I accidentally smushed two together) isn’t easy. A lot happens, background fills in and moral agendas unfold, and trying to analyze an entire multi book series in a single review is not the easiest. That being said, all of the books are in the same universe and follow the same people so they do all kind of mesh.

The universe concept is awesome. It presents colonial and post-colonial America in an alternate universe where there are crown colonies in the south, independent America is in the northwest, Native Americans create their own reservation out of ALL land west of the Mississippi, and Puritan New England is its own state. The Red magic is the magic of the land, specializing in communication with earth and woods and creatures, focusing on cyclical relationships and wholistic existence, voluntary sacrifice, and long term survival over short term gain. The Negro magic comes from objects and bits of yourself, feathers and urine and lost hairs and wax to bind it all together, powerful but requiring sacrifices. The white magic comes as ‘knacks’. Particular skills such as forming iron, cooking, comforting, or storytelling all come as particular, slightly supernatural ‘knacks’ in each person. Alvin’s knack is ‘making’, the ability to see deeply into the atoms and cells and souls that make up a person or a thing. He can knit bones and arteries, change iron to gold, convince wildlife to trust him, and even use his blood to form water into blocks of crystal that should last forever. It’s a really neat idea and formed the backbone to a great epic of good against evil and the slow evolution of a young person into someone meaningful and lasting.

It’s also kinda fun that it’s peppered with historical figures. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, Abraham Lincoln, John Adams, George Washington, David Bowie, and dozens more pop into and out of Alvin’s life and the world he lives in. Their lives are often vastly different from what history tells us, but it’s fun to kind of have an idea of their historical significance and watch how the author plays with them. They’re all useful to alvin’s cause or used by his enemies but their addition enlivens the world Alvin’s story lives in.

The story itself is incredible. It’s the story of an extraordinary child set against impossible odds, changing the world and learning how one mistake at a time. Alvin makes difficult choices and moves the world in meaningful ways, all the while just a humble young man who wants to settle down and raise a family. It’s the classic story of a normal person with greatness thrust upon them that lights imaginations so often and to such great effect.

The writing is…. Acceptable. I have a feeling that, had I read it instead of listening to it and would thus be able to skim over some of the more repetitive moralizing and recapping, I would have enjoyed it much more. Because I listened to it, I heard in every. Single. Volume. The story of how little Peggy Guester saved the ‘birth caul’ from newborn Alvin’s face and used the power from it to save him many times. I heard multiple times the tedious conversations that served no purpose in moving the action forward, only allowed the author to express his personal opinions. I swear, if I hear one more woman read to me, passionately, the story of Alvin’s birth I’d freaking… Well, do nothing, really, just get really annoyed. I get that in a series you have to make sure that each book technically stands alone, but seriously… It got so sappy and so moralistic and so focused on what the characters thought instead of what they did… I wonder if audio book needs a different kind of writing than books intended to be read only.

Overall, the series is reasonable. It’s a good story, an interesting world, it has two, if not three dimensional characters, and I think I would have very much enjoyed sitting on a patio reading them quietly more than I enjoyed listening to overly dramatic orators stress every damn syllable. Next on my list is the biography of Thomas Jefferson and in the middle was ‘the Witches of America’, a story of the making of a documentary on modern day Wicca, both of which I can assure you are more interesting and a better use of your Audio book time. Also, If you haven’t read all of Mary roach’s books yet, they’re a much more entertaining and valuable use of your time. I recommend them at least three times more than I reccomend the Chronicles of Alvin Maker.

As a side note, I read these books because I now have access to a service called overdrive. Using your Seattle public library card, you can check out books and audio books for free. It’s a great service and even if you aren’t interested in these books in particular, there are hundreds of other volumes to check out. It’s a particularly good idea for kids who will read and discard their literature.