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Literature / The Tales of Alvin Maker

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Seventh Son, the first book in the Alvin Maker series

A series of Fantasy/Alternate History books written by 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 and Expy 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.

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 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.
  • America Is Still a Colony: The series splits the difference, with portions of colonial America splitting away as a reduced United States, another portion remaining a colony of a republican England where the Restoration never occurred, and a third part being claimed by the exiled House of Stuart.
  • The Anti-God: The antagonist is the Maker's opposite, the Unmaker. It's debated In-universe whether he's the same as The Devil.
  • Anti-Villain: Calvin becomes one in later books. He seems mainly intended as a lazy, amoral Foil to Alvin, showing what a Maker without Alvin's scruples would be like. However, we spend a lot of time following Calvin as he blunders through the world in pursuit one one half-baked goal or another, getting himself into trouble and getting out of it through ham-fisted (but still somewhat effective) methods.
  • Artistic License – Linguistics: "Iroquois" (spelled "Irrakawa" in the series) is now generally agreed to be an improperly used exonym (it's a French transliteration of a Huron word meaning "snake"); they actually call themselves the "Haudenosaunee", meaning "People of the Longhouse". While it's possible that some people in this world might still incorrectly use that word, the state of Irrakawa wouldn't be called that if it were actually founded and governed by the tribes of the Haudenosaunee alliance.
  • Astral Projection: Maker's can do this by projecting part of their soul called a doodlebug.
  • 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 more subtly 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, Napoléon 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.
  • The Casanova: Honore Balzac tries to hit on Peggy, despite knowing she's married.
  • Comes Great Responsibility: Early in Seventh Son, after Lolla-Wossiky shows Alvin how Alvin misused his knack to betray cockroaches to their deaths, Alvin takes a solemn oath never to use his power for personal gain. Later in the book, Taleswapper convinces Alvin that he can still use his power to save his own life, as long as he takes a second oath to devote his life to fighting the Unmaker.
  • Comic-Book Adaptation: Red Prophet: The Tales of Alvin Maker was a twelve-issue limited series by Marvel Comics.
  • 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.
  • Early-Installment Weirdness: The first book has Whites being able to cast spoken spells with varying effects, in addition to their having individual knacks and knowing how to draw protective hexes. From the second book onward, that kind of magic is never seen or mentioned again.
  • Even Evil Has Standards:
    • Daniel Webster is thoroughly disgusted by the Slave Finders.
    • When we first meet him, Mike Fink figures that if he kills someone in a fight that's just what his victim gets for losing. However, he finds that he has no stomach for killing people who aren't even trying to fight back, and abandons Harrison's service because of it. The narration notes that everyone ultimately draw the line somewhere.
  • Everyone Is a Super: It's sometimes implied that every white person has a knack, even if it's somet near useless like being able to draw straight lines.
  • Evil Is Sterile: The Un-Maker is incapable of making or creating anything, even something non-physical, like a plan for undoing the works of Alvin Maker. It instead has to rely on its willing human tools to do that sort of thing for it.
  • Fantasy Americana: The setting is explicitly a magical America.
  • Fantasy World Map: Of North America.
  • First Injury Reaction: Mike Fink was tattooed shortly after his birth with a hex that made him invincible. After the hex is broken, he is completely incapacitated by the pain from a single blow, as he has never felt pain before.
  • 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.
  • God Test: Red Prophet, some Indian hecklers demand that the one-eyed prophet Tenskwa-Tawa prove his powers by restoring his missing eye. The prophet rebukes them, and reveals the supernatural visions he receives through the missing eye—and ends up making new converts.
  • 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... Alvin gets this for Peggy Larner.
  • Interquel: The first part of Prentice Alvin is devoted to filling in the gaps in Peggy's life in Vigor Church while Alvin was growing up in Hatrack River in between events described in Seventh Son and Red Prophet. Arthur's birth also occurs in that gap, as his mother arrived in Vigor Church shortly after Alvin's family left.
  • 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.).
  • It Amused Me: Why did Calvin advise William Henry Harrison how to become president just to kill him when he did it? because he could.
  • 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: Makers are both seventh sons of seventh sons and thirteenth child in a family. Notably these refer to the the number of siblings alive when the Maker is born so an older brother dying shortly after Alvin was born meant that the next brother, Calvin also got to be a Maker.
  • 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.
  • Meaningful Name: Enforced: people in the Alvin Maker universe traditionally use surnames based on whatever their occupation is at the time (a historical practice common in the middle ages), changing their names whenever they take up a new trade. Some of them have obvious meanings: Alvin is initially called "Alvin Miller" because his father is a miller, Makepeace Smith is a blacksmith, and Verily Cooper is a cooper (i.e. he makes barrels). Others are more subtle: Peggy's last name is initially "Guester" because her parents are innkeepers (i.e. they take in travelers as guests), she becomes "Margaret Larner" after becoming a teacher ("larn" being an antiquated pronunciation of "learn", an archaic synonym for "teach"), and Ulysses "Hooch" Palmer is a dishonest peddler ("palm" being an archaic word for "defraud").
  • 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.
  • No Historical Figures Were Harmed: Alvin is explicitly intended as Card's alternate reimagining of Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism. A few other supporting characters were also clearly inspired by important figures in the history of the Mormon faith: Alvin's wife Margaret Larner loosely corresponds to Smith's wife Emma Hale Smith, and Alvin's older brother Measure Miller and his adoptive brother-in-law Arthur Stuart have parallels with Smith's brother Hyrum Smith.
  • The Nudifier: Calvin tries to use his doodlebug to clean his soiled clothes after a night of drinking but ends up making them disappear entirely.
  • Playing with Fire: There's a type of knack-user called a spark who can start fires with their mind. It's said they tend to keep this power a secret to stop them getting blamed for local fires.
  • P.O.V. Sequel: The first part of Red Prophet takes place during the same timeframe as Seventh Son, retelling a few minor events from that book from Lolla-Wossiky's perspective. Lolla-Wossiky is first mentioned in passing in Seventh Son as an alcoholic and recent Christian convert in Hatrack River, and he briefly appears in Alvin's bedroom to give him a vision; in Red Prophet, the full story of his spiritual awakening is finally told, and we see events leading up to the incident in the bedroom from his perspective. Amusingly, one scene in Seventh Son has Alvin briefly wondering if he's being watched by Reds while he's out using the outhouse; when we see the same scene in Red Prophet, it's revealed that Lolla-Wossiky actually was watching him at the time.
  • The Red Mage: Alvin 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, wondering if it means he'll be a Jack of All Trades, Master of None, or Master Of All.
  • 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").
  • Rule of Seven: Used for a minor Allohistorical Allusion. This universe's version of the United States starts out as a union of seven states instead of thirteen (as in, the classic lucky number instead of the classic unlucky one).
  • Sacrificial Lamb: Vigor Miller, the eldest of the Miller sons, drowns in the Hatrack River at the end of the first chapter of the first book in the series, making it clear that no character is truly safe from this point forward. Despite his early death, however, he still plays an important role in Alvin's story: since he manages to cling to life until after his younger brother is born, he ensures that Alvin really is the seventh son of a seventh son (the prophecy only works if all six of his older brothers are alive at the time of his birth), and properly inherits his powers.
  • Scarily Competent Tracker: The Slave Finders.
  • Small Role, Big Impact: Lolla-Wossiky in Seventh Son, before he becomes an Ascended Extra in the next book. He only appears in the flesh in one scene, but he gives Alvin a series of visions that proves integral to his growth as a Maker.
  • The Storyteller: Taleswapper (William Blake).
  • Sugar-and-Ice Personality: Peggy when she first appears in the second book.
  • Technical Pacifist: Mike Fink is a walking lampshade of this trope.
  • Theme Twin Naming: Alvin has older twin brothers called Wastenot and Wantnot, named after the expression "Waste not, want not".
  • Trilogy Creep: The prologue of the fourth book attempts to justify this somewhat.
  • United Europe: Napoleon achieves this by not invading Russia.
  • Vision Quest: In Seventh Son, young Alvin receives a mysterious visit from the "whiskey-Red" Lolla-Wossiky. In the next book, Red Prophet, we find out that Lolla-Wossiky was on his vision quest, and Alvin was his spirit animal; the encounter transforms Lolla-Wossiky into the prophet Tenskwa-Tawa.
  • 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.
  • 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.

Alternative Title(s): Alvin Maker