Monday, November 22, 2010

1988 Locus Fantasy - SEVENTH SON by Orson Scott Card

I haven’t been too impressed with Orson Scott Card’s work so far, but I was intrigued by the Alvin Maker series. I am a historian, and I actually specialize in frontiers during the Early Republic, an era that gets short shrift in a lot of fiction. The idea of a historical fantasy that eschews the typical medieval or Renaissance European settings is refreshing and full of potential. Card also does a nice job grounding much of the magic of his world in the actual folk beliefs of nineteenth century America. In this alternate history, the English Commonwealth survived the death of James Cromwell, and the American revolutionaries seem to have been mostly defeated by this Puritan Empire, though there are hints of Thomas Jefferson still active in the South and a United States has formed in the Middle Colonies and the west.

Unfortunately, none of this really figures into this novel, and the main difference from recorded history is that all the place names are spelled differently, often in annoyingly cutesy ways: the Mississippi is the Mizzipy, the Ohio is the Hio, the Wabash is the Wobbish, the Illinois is the Noisy, and so on. Instead of dealing with the big differences of this world, the novel follows the frontier childhood of Alvin Miller, the seventh son of a seventh son, imbued with great power and a greater destiny. We start with Alvin’s difficult birth in a storm, and see him almost killed several time by strange accidents. Then, a wandering mystic named Taleswapper shows up to tell Alvin of his power and help him survive one last disaster. And, that’s all there is to this entry in the series.

My biggest problem with the book is that it moves so slowly and only covers Alvin through his adolescence. Card clearly knew that he was writing for a series, which is fine, but this novel did not work as a standalone book for me. It’s slow moving and inconsequential; we mostly just hear about how great Alvin will be. I also was more than a little bothered to see we have yet another perfect young man as our hero. Card is apparently only interested in messiah-like superbeings as his characters. Alvin is Ender all over again.

It’s been interesting to see Card’s prose develop very rapidly over the three novels I’ve read. Ender’s Game was very plain and unaffected, but both Speaker and Seventh Son employ a folksier style that feels like diluted Twain. It’s at least unique, but it can become cloying. It also lacks authenticity in this setting; Card’s idea of writing Early Republic characters is to have them use double (and triple) negatives and the contraction “ain’t.” He employs little of the period’s distinctive vocabulary, shaped by the King James Bible and regional colloquialisms.

If I wanted to continue on with the series, I would have plenty of opportunities. There have been six books so far, and four of them won the Locus Fantasy award. And, the next novel appears to deal with the Shawnee brothers Tecumseh and Tenskwatawa, two of the most fascinating characters in American history, who are often neglected in historical fiction. I don’t think I will continue though. Card clearly has a lot of fascinating ideas, but I’m just not interested in the deliberate multi-book pacing, flat characters, moralizing, and thinly-veiled references to his own religion and ideology that increasingly seem to characterize his work.

No review Friday in respect for post-Turkey Day shopping/food comas. I'll be back on Monday with 1988's WFA winner.

Grade: C+

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