Literature: The Tales of Alvin Maker
Seventh Son, the first book in the Alvin Maker series
A series of Fantasy/Alternate History books written by the talented Orson Scott Card
, set a little bit after the American Revolutionary War, in a world where supernatural powers are a fact of life. In Spite of a Nail
, however, history hasn't really diverged that much. There is a still a United States of America growing and racism still grows up in the South. However, this USA is much smaller, since the lower half of the Eastern Seaboard is the Crown Colonies, the government in exile of the House of Stuart. Up north is New England, still a colony of a republican England where the Restoration never occurred, and utterly opposed to "witchery", even though supernatural powers are very much real in this world. Meanwhile, out West, a mountain-based rebel group led by Tom Jefferson
fights to keep the independent state of Appalachee free from the Crown.
Race and culture play a huge part in the story. The slavery of Blacks is still going on in the South, and there is a deep-seated, mutual distrust and hatred between the Reds and Whites. Representative of these differences is how the supernatural powers manifest themselves across the cultures. Whites have a knack, a single skill that they can perform perfectly (such as making a perfect barrel, or being able to tell when people are lying). The Reds live in perfect harmony with nature, and can communicate (albeit vaguely) with the land and animals through the "Greensong"; Reds can also use their blood to perform particular powerful bits of magic (especially the Mexica Reds, who sacrifice their still-living enemies). Finally, the Blacks use a form of voodoo magic, mixing earth and bits of their flesh or body to perform very powerful magic (such as when one black woman makes a poppet of herself with wings and burns it, sacrificing her life in order to grow wings and carry her child out of slavery). It's not clear how much of these abilities are nurture and how much are nature, since some characters can learn other people's knacks or other cultures abilities.
Born into all this is Alvin Miller (later Alvin Smith, and eventually Alvin Maker), a seventh-son-of-a-seventh-son
of Joseph Smith (founder of the Mormon Church), a young child with tremendous powers, destined to be a Maker
, the first one for almost two thousand years
. Able to bend metal, heal cancer, and many other abilities, he desires to learn how to control his abilities and help the world, aided by Peggy Larner, a girl with the ability to see people's thoughts, past, and future. Their primary goal is to build the Crystal City, a mysterious city of Makers shown to Alvin in a vision.
Filled with historical figures and powerful magic, it's an entertaining and satisfying tale.
Notably, Orson Scott Card named his official website, "Hatrack River"
, after one of the key locations in the Alvin Maker
series. The indie pop duo The Scene Aesthetic are also apparently big fans of the series, as they included a song titled "Alvin Maker's Greensong" on their 2007 self-titled album.
This series contains examples of:
- Abusive Parent:
- Cavil Planter sends his half-black children South into slavery when they're weaned.
- Arise Cooper beat his son Verily, often quite badly, so he wouln't be "taken in by the devil" (use his knack). The funny thing is it probably saved his life.
- Adaptation Expansion: The series, as a whole, is actually an expansion of "Prentice Alvin and the No-Good Plow", a narrative poem that Card wrote when he was a grad student. The relatively brief poem only includes the story of Alvin (just "Alvin" here) forging the golden plow, but the roots of the series' mythology (including an unnamed evil force that would develop into The Unmaker) are still there, and Verily Cooper makes a brief appearance.
- It can be read in its entirety here.
- Alternate History
- Alternate Universe Ben Franklin Is Awesome: Benjamin Franklin apparently had far more active influence on American history in this timeline than in our own, singlehandedly authoring the document that made the United States a sovereign nation, and apparently being one of the first people ever to suggest that Americans be considered a separate people. He was also far more pro-active about Native American rights (a cause that he was unusually liberal about in Real Life) in this timeline, and it's because of his efforts that the Irrakawa were admitted as a separate state with full American citizenship.
- Author Tract: It can seem like this, depending on how much you know about Orson Scott Card's Mormon faith, which the series' mythology heavily draws from. Some of the later books get a bit preachy, but if you don't know what to look for it's much easier to ignore and appreciate the tale for its own sake.
- Beethoven Was an Alien Spy: Done subtler than most examples, but definitely present. In this world, many prominent figures from our history apparently owe their success to supernatural "Knacks", but they're such a natural part of this world that no one finds this particularly noteworthy. William Blake got his poetic vision from his prophetic abilities, Napoleon Bonaparte rose to prominence as a commander because of his supernatural knack for making people obey him, and Tenskwatawa won the Shawnee's respect because he was a genuinely powerful prophet and Earth wizard.
- Birth-Death Juxtaposition: Alvin and his oldest brother Vigor.
- Cain and Abel: Alvin and Calvin.
- The Casanova: Honore Balzac. He even tries to hit on Peggy, despite knowing she's married.
- Child by Rape: Arthur Stuart.
- Clingy MacGuffin: The golden plow.
- Covers Always Lie: The first edition cover of Seventh Son (seen above) depicts Taleswapper as a long-haired, bearded Gandalf-esque figure, even though he's explicitly described as bald in the books. And, y'know...he's a fictionalized version of this guy◊.
- Crystal Dragon Jesus: Actually more Crystal Dragon Joseph Smith, namely Alvin.
- Divided States of America: At the beginning, it's split into four separate nations:
- New England, a Puritan nation ruled by the Lord Protector of England.
- The Crown Colonies, the present-day Southern United States, ruled by the exiled British monarch. Lord Potomac (George Washington) was a leader in their army before he was executed for refusing to fight the Appalachee rebels.
- The United States, a collection of independent colonies sandwiched between New England and the Crown Colonies, which were persuaded to unite by Benjamin Franklin. Includes the state of Irrakawa (Iroquois), governed by the eponymous Indians.
- Appalachee, a sovereign state founded by Thomas Jefferson, which declared independence from the Crown Colonies in a War of Independence. The Cherriky (Cherokee) are their official allies.
- Even Evil Has Standards: Daniel Webster is thoroughly disgusted by the Slave Finders.
- Fantasy World Map: Of North America.
- Functional Magic: In the various magic systems used by each race. (The differences in the use of magic is explained to be due to cultural differences.)
- "Whites" have Inherent Gifts; their magic attaches itself to an existing talent of theirs, accentuating that ability. They are also able to draw magical "Hexes" (hexagons).
- "Blacks" use Device Magic; they attach their spirits to a small object that they keep on themselves, and these allow them to manipulate their magic in different ways. (Some slave traders used this against them and took away these talismans so as to essentially turn the slaves into mindless workers incapable of feeling true emotion.)
- "Reds" (Native Americans) use Force Magic; basically they hear the "song" of nature, which allows them to become a part of it. They use this power to communicate with the natural world around them, and among other things, they are able to walk through woods undetected, influence plants and animals, and run for hours on end without becoming weary.
- It is extremely rare for a person raised in one culture to learn the magic of another. It has more to do with upbringing than ancestry, so people of Native American descent who live in the United States use magic the way white men do. The only known exceptions are Alvin, who learned Red magic due to his being a powerful Maker and the year he spent living among Reds, and Arthur Stuart, who was taught by Alvin.
- Historical-Domain Character: William Henry Harrison, William Blake, several Founding Fathers, Daniel Webster, Daniel Boone, Aaron Burr, Tecumseh (Ta-kumsaw), Tenskwatawa, and so many others.
- Historical Villain Upgrade: William Henry Harrison is the most prominent example. Card almost offers an apology for the change to this character in one of the prefaces.
- Hot for Teacher: Amy Sump gets this way for Alvin. Then she starts spreading rumors about them having sex...
- In the Past, Everyone Will Be Famous
- Istanbul Not Constantinople: Crops up everywhere in this world's map of America. It ranges from subtle respellings of places with Native American names (the Mississippi is the "Mizzipy", Tennessee is "Tenizzy", Ohio is "Hio", etc.) to changes based on political lines (New Orleans is "Nueva Barcelona", New York is still "New Amsterdam", etc.).
- Kuudere: Peggy when she first appears in the second book.
- LEGO Genetics: In the case of Arthur Stuart.
- Magical Native American: Subverted. The Native Americans genuinely are magical, but so is everyone else in 19th century America.
- Magical Seventh Son: Both Alvin and Calvin are a seventh son of a seventh son.
- Make Way For The New Villains: William Henry Harrison being taken down by Calvin.
- The Man Behind the Man: Cavil Planter is the main force behind Harrison's presidential campaign.
- Manipulative Bastard: Daniel Webster is one, but the true master is Napoleon himself, who has this as his knack.
- Master Of All: He can duplicate the specialized "knack" abilities of almost every other character of European descent in the series, and the generalist greensong powers of the Native Americans as well. A character Lampshades this when a phrenological examination of his head reveals that all of his traits and talents are perfectly balanced.
- The Messiah: Alvin.
- Murder Water: In this world, water is evil. It frequently tries to kill Alvin through various means.
- Later explained that the Unmaker uses water more easily than the other elements, because it's so naturally eroding. This helped a bit, as it was hard to keep seeing water as the "bad" element when it's so often fire in fiction.
- My Greatest Failure: For Peggy, it's not paying attention to her mother, resulting in her death at the hands of a Slave Finder. For Alvin, it's giving into his anger and killing that same Slave Finder.
- Richard Nixon the Used Car Salesman:
- George Washington was a land-holding nobleman (called "Lord Potomac") who fought on the British side of an American War of Independence, where Benedict Arnold commanded the American side.
- William Blake is a roguish traveling storyteller with no permanent home or job.
- Though he's ostensibly an Army officer, just like in our timeline, William Henry Harrison is essentially an American warlord (he even calls himself "Governor").
- Scarily Competent Tracker: The Slave Finders.
- The Storyteller: Taleswapper (William Blake).
- Sympathetic Magic
- Technical Pacifist: Mike Fink is a walking lampshade of this trope.
- Trilogy Creep: The prologue of the fourth book attempts to justify this somewhat.
- United Europe: Napoleon achieves this by not invading Russia.
- Voice Changeling: Arthur Stuart starts with this as his knack. He loses it after Alvin alters his body in order to hide him from the Slave Finders. He later relearns how to do it through practice.
- Weirdness Magnet: Alvin tends towards this, drawing in people with strong knacks...and their personal issues with them.
- What Measure Is a Non-Human?: One of the first big moral questions that Alvin must confront in the first book. Early in Seventh Son, he gets into a prank war with his older sisters (which started with him randomly poking one of them in the butt) and decides to get back at them by using his knack to send a bunch of roaches to swarm their room late at night by convincing the roaches that the room is full of food. Soon after, Lolla-Wossiky forces him to relive the entire experience from the' perspective of the roaches (most of which were stomped to death), and Alvin realizes that he lied to a whole swarm of sentient creatures and knowingly sent them to their deaths over a childish feud. This is a big step in Alvin learning the importance of using his knack responsibly.
- What Might Have Been: At one point, a GURPS adaptation of this setting, written (or possibly co-written) by Card himself, was announced. In the two decades since then, it has showed no sign of appearing.
- Writer on Board: A thinly-veiled Fictional Counterpart of Joseph Smith is a messianic figure with honest-to-god superpowers, and the consumption of alcohol is consistently depicted as evil because it deadens the Magical Native Americans' mystical connections to nature. To be fair, though, the use of alcohol to sow discord between Native American tribes (a rather large plot point in the second book) is Truth in Television.