Book Review: Tales of Alvin Maker #4 – Alvin Journeyman

Title: Alvin Journeyman
Author: Orson Scott Card
Year of Publication: 1995
Series: Tales of Alvin Maker
#: 4
Goodreads Rating (Avg.): 3.72
Goodreads Rating (Mine): 1

Plot Description: After a brief period of time spent in Vigor Church, Alvin once again ends up back in Hatrack River. Unfortunately, Makepiece Smith, the man he was once apprenticed to, has brought charges of larceny against him, claiming he stole the golden plow. The rest of the book focuses on the trial and the ways in which the Unmaker continues to move against Alvin. Meanwhile, Alvin’s younger brother Calvin Smith meets Napoleon in France and tries to learn the secrets of leadership from him.

Spoilers

alvin journeyman.jpg

At this point I’m seriously groaning, wondering how I’m ever going to finish reviewing this series. Tales of Alvin Maker and Stephen King’s Dark Tower series are what prompted me to stop reviewing for almost a year and a half – simply because these two series are too big and too badly written for me to enjoy the process of reviewing them properly.

Between the white saviour nonsense, the white guilt, the fetishization of POC, the self importance of the plot, the super cheesy writing and unnecessary details (which make no sense anyway, I can no longer pick one aspect of this book to nominate as its worst.

It’s hard for me to explain why this series is no longer working. I think perhaps it’s because it’s fragmented and suffers from a lot of dissonance. Alvin is the star of the show, the most awesome person ever, blah blah blah. So one would be justified in expecting maturity from him, a balanced viewpoint that never comes. Alvin is a living conflict – on the one hand, he’s all calm and collected and compassionate all the time (like Jesus). On the other hand he whines about Peggy and how she won’t love him, and how can she be a good wife for him when she always knows better than him and keeps the important details of what she foresees from him. It’s utter nonsense.

“What kind of marriage is it, when my wife knows everything but she never tells me enough to make up my own mind! Instead she always makes up my mind for me. Or tells me exactly what she needs to tell me in order to get me to do what she thinks I ought to do.” – Alvin Maker

The folksy style of writing also gets on one’s nerves once it becomes clear that nothing of import is being said. Alvin Journeyman contains tons of long winded passages that mean nothing and go nowhere. Calvin’s adventures are slightly more interesting if only because of what a terrible character Calvin is, and how filled with his own self importance and self righteousness he is. At one point, having met White Murderer Harrison, Calvin tells him to take control of his own narrative, to claim that the bloody hands were an undeserved result of native american magic. Harrison does as Calvin suggests, his popularity surges and he’s elected President of the United States. Calvin returns from France just in time for Harrison’s inauguration, and promptly kills Harrison. For… fun? I don’t pretend to understand his motives.

“I’d rather be ignorant and sound educated than be educated and sound ignorant,” and I said, “Why?” and he says to me, “Because if you sound educated then nobody ever tests you to find out, but if you sound ignorant they never stop.” – Calvin and Taleswapper.

Verily Cooper’s jealousy and possessiveness over Calvin is an example of an unnecessarily cheesy detail that doesn’t belong anywhere. Except perhaps to show that no one has any semblance of life except that which is spent in blind adoration to Alvin. Once again, a dangerous narrative to write, especially considering this series is supposed to be an allegorical reference to an actual historical character.

Because once there was a woman by that name who freed her slaves and protected them all the way north, and then hired and looked after them until they learned the ways of free men and women and could stand on their own. It is a name of great honor. No one would know of the schoolteacher who came one day and gave open words to the secret longings of Jane’s heart. – More white saviour BS. Emphasis mine.

At some point Card seems to make the point that men are, in general, terrible to women. But considering how inconsequential all the female characters are in his book, I think he needs a good look in the mirror.

If good people weren’t so trusting of bad ones, the human race would have died out long ago—most women never would have let most men near them.

This example actually goes to the root of Card’s brand of sexism – he implies that most men are bad, while most women are good. And that’s some cultural feminist rubbish right there. Humans are humans. There is no inherent goodness that comes along with being female. There are no male roles and female roles – and yet, his female characters are all fulfilling supporting roles. Are they strong? Sure, strong in character. But that doesn’t make them strong characters. It’s really not the same thing, Mr. Card.

Another aspect of this book that I found hilarious was Alvin’s supporters – Peggy chief among them – attacking Marty Laws for doing his job as the counsel for the county in the process of Alvin’s trial.

“So you are Alvin’s enemy, and the enemy of truth.” Peggy hurled the words, meaning them to bite.

“Accuse me all you like,” said Marty, “but my job is to make the case that Alvin stole that gold. I don’t think your testimony, based entirely on your unverifiable claim as a torch that Makepeace is a liar, should be allowed to stand unchallenged. If it did stand that way, then every half-baked dreamspeaker and soothsayer in the country would be able to say whatever he pleased and juries would believe them, and then what would happen to justice in America?”

“Let me understand you,” said Peggy. “You plan to discredit me, destroy my reputation, and convict Alvin, all for the sake of justice in America?”

“As I said,” Marty repeated, “I hope your lawyer can do as good a job defending Alvin as I’m going to do prosecuting him. I hope he can find as much damning evidence against my witnesses as Mr. Webster and I have found concerning Alvin. Because, frankly, I don’t like my witnesses much, and I think Makepeace is a greedy lying bastard who should go to jail himself for perjury but I can’t prove it.”

“How can you live with yourself, then, working in the service of evil when you know so clearly what is good?”

“It’s also good for the public prosecutor to prosecute, instead of setting himself up as judge.”

Marty is a conscientious man, one that gives due respect to precedent and due process. I’m glad this passage found its way into the book. The case itself, however, isn’t resolved on the basis of legal arguments as much as through Alvin going magic in the courtroom to expose the Unmaker’s machinations.

What really annoys me is the “Crystal City,” because that’s where the series completely falls apart. Peggy sees that if Alvin were to be acquitted, then the witnesses and the jury will all be part of the Crystal City. Card sets up a lot of things like this, all leading to the Crystal City, in both this book and the next one. Unfortunately, he seems to have written the last book devoid of any connections to the rest of the series, and plenty of set up along the way is discarded or forgotten about.

Next, TV Review: American Gods S01E01 – The Bone Orchard

Next in this Series: Tales of Alvin Maker #5 – Heartfire

Book Review: Tales of Alvin Maker #3 – Prentice Alvin

Title: Prentice Alvin
Author: Orson Scott Card
Year of Publication: 1989
Series: Tales of Alvin Maker
#: 3
Goodreads Rating (Avg.): 3.76
Goodreads Rating (Mine): 2.5

Watch for Spoilers

prenticealvin

Plot Description: After his adventures with the Native Americans, Alvin finally reaches his birthplace for the long promised apprenticeship. The blacksmith under whom he is to learn is understandably put off by the fact that he’s about a year late. In the meantime, Peggy (the Torch from the first book) is finally ready to stop protecting him full time and get herself a life of her own. The very day Alvin is set to return to Hattrack Town, Peggy runs away. A subplot deals with a runaway slave girl who is determined to ensure that her child is born a free man.

Prentice Alvin is undoubtedly where the Alvin Maker series begins to spiral out of control. For the most part, the plot is boring, dealing with Alvin’s trials under the ornery Smith, who finds it difficult to decide whether to be jealous or greedy. The people around him continue to react to him in predictable ways – unconditional admiration, or jealous loathing, but obsessive in either case.

The runaway girl’s son is named Arthur Stuart, after the King of England of the time and adopted by Peggy Guester’s mother in the place of the daughter she had lost. Arthur Stuart grows up to completely adore Alvin and has a knack of mimicking voices and sounds perfectly, along with an eidetic memory.

I spoke about the theme of white guilt pervading Orson Scott Card’s writing in Red Prophet, and this theme becomes even more pronounced in Prentice Alvin. Card goes out of his way to emphasize the foulness and vileness of slavery as a practice, as if to ensure that the reader is left with no doubt as to Card’s stance on the issue. Unfortunately, Arthur Stuart is a complete nonentity of a character, surrounded by privileged white characters who devote their time and energy to protecting him from danger. He is the first non-white character to have a major role in this series (yes, it took three books) and he barely does anything at all.

Card’s worldview as far as Native Americans and African Americans are concerned is similar to the Orientalist perspective on Asian countries. Factors that are considered indigenous to that culture are upheld and applauded, while attempts at integrating factors that were until then unique to white cultures are looked down upon. For example, he decries the decisions of the Iroquois and Cherokee tribes to integrate with the American nation, and in his alternate universe, the Native Americans move away to form their own nation, on which Whites may never set foot. As far as the rest of the country is concerned, the ‘greensong’ has all but died out there, and will never return. That land is considered dead.

The problem with a privileged party taking up the cause of an oppressed party as a means of assuaging their own guilt is that the voices of the oppressed are once again passed over in favour of that of a member of the privileged class. In addition to this, Card’s interpretation of history is still largely white-centric, for all his moral lecturing, and black characters are yet to become a major part of the story of Alvin Maker.

Moreover, I’m one of those people who think that scenes depicting graphic violence towards demographics that have traditionally suffered much violence, and who are still quite vulnerable to violence should be avoided unless completely necessary to the plot. This is one of the biggest reasons why I stopped watching Game of Thrones, and it’s a major criticism I plan to bring up when I eventually review the Alex Cross series by James Patterson. A lot of GR reviews talk about how the adult content in this book prevents them from reading it to their kids, and I think that while the scenes in Prentice Alvin still fall under the heading of ‘Adult Content’ and not ‘Completely Unnecessary Pornographic Sensationalism’ (CUPS?) they were perhaps not entirely necessary to the plot. I can think of a few other ways in which the same information could have been imparted to the reader without using the scenes Card did in this book.

My final criticism of Prentice Alvin (which extends to the rest of the series as well) is how obsessively the story centres around Alvin now. The lives of every character – most prominently that of Peggy Guester – has become about Alvin. In one of the final scenes of the book, Alvin uses his powers to create his journeyman piece – a plow made of living gold. While the fantasy genre is no stranger to wild, weird concepts, it feels out of place in this series which largely rests on an atmosphere of American folk magic.

P.S.: I really don’t like the Alvin depicted on the cover above. He looks awfully smug and arrogant.

Next Review: The Dark Tower #3 – The Waste Lands

Next Review in this Series: Tales of Alvin Maker #4 – Alvin Journeyman

Book Review: Tales of Alvin Maker #2 – Red Prophet

Title: Red Prophet
Author: Orson Scott Card
Year of Publication: 1988
Series: Tales of Alvin Maker
#: 2
Goodreads Rating (Avg.): 3.77
Goodreads Rating (Mine): 4

There’s Bound To Be A Few Spoilers

 red prophet

Plot Description: Following the events of the previous book, in which Alvin was injured severely and had to learn how to heal his own leg, he’s now been pronounced well enough to go back to Hatrack River, where his father has arranged for him to be apprenticed to a blacksmith. While he’s travelling with his brother Measure, they’re kidnapped by ‘Reds’ – Native Americans – who are purportedly feuding with the settlers. This is how Alvin eventually reunites with the ‘Red Prophet’, whom he had previously met in the first book.

This book might just be my favourite out of the Tales of Alvin Maker series, but that being said, I have two words that come to mind when I think of this book: “White Guilt”.

Any story set in Frontier-era America would have to feature Native American tribes, and the interactions of the settlers with them. Alvin Maker is no exception, set as it is against a backdrop of constant fighting between the white settlers and the ‘Reds’. In addition to their battles with Native American tribes, the white settlers themselves are multicultural – English, Dutch, French etc – in origin, and engage in battles amongst themselves as well.

Red Prophet features two famous historical figures in Native American history – Tenskwa Tawa and Ta-Kumsaw. The two are depicted as brothers, the former a pacifist and the latter a warrior. Tenskwa Tawa briefly appeared in Seventh Son as Lolla-wasiky, an alcoholic Native American whose addiction held a debilitating hold over him, and who was cured of the same by a chance encounter with young Alvin. Red Prophet expands on his journey and history, and his relationship with his brother, as well as his future as a ‘prophet’ for the Native Americans – one that counsels that they stay away from alcohol.

In its essence, Red Prophet is a revisionist history of the Battle of Tippecanoe, recounted from a Native American perspective as a massacre of pacifist Natives led by Tenskwa Tawa. Tenskwa Tawa and his brother also take on roles as spiritual mentors to young Alvin, to better help him understand his powers.

Stories about the Native Americans have always fascinated me, because it refers to a whole world of people I’ve never met. And that’s why I like Red Prophet. It is commendable that Card’s revisionism allows for an alternate history told from the perspective of the loser, and not the winner. The fact remains, however that Card is not Native American.

It’s always difficult and problematic to write from a perspective that is not yours. It’s not to say that one shouldn’t, but one should also remember to add the caveat. To remember that the subjects of your writing may resent you for attempting to take over their voices and tell their stories on their behalf – again (Because lets be real, that’s what happens when the winners write history).

As for the rest, Red Prophet is perhaps one of the better (or the best) books in this series. It’s decently written, suspenseful in all the right places, and has only minor plot holes. The subplots involving Governor Harrison, Tippecanoe, the curse of bloody hands, mystical whirlwinds that exist outside the time and space paradigm all fit right into the story. There are few, if any elements that jar the reader out of this world of magical fantasy and into reality.

Next in this Series: Tales of Alvin Maker #3 – Prentice Alvin

Next Review: Dark Tower #2 – The Drawing of the Three

Book Review: Tales of Alvin Maker #1 – Seventh Son

Title: Seventh Son
Author: Orson Scott Card
Year of Publication: 1988
Series: Tales of Alvin Maker
#: 1
Goodreads Rating (Avg.): 3.86
Goodreads Rating (Mine): 4

Mild Spoilers, If You Can Call ‘Em That

seventh son

Plot Description: In an alternate universe version of America – back in the Frontier days – Orson Scott Card presents a world filled with magic, and a reimagining of various historical persons and places.

I recently finished both this series as well as Stephen King’s Dark Tower series, and my reaction to both of them were pretty similar, so I’m going to try and review them together.

The reaction I refer to is one of extreme annoyance coupled with my ever present compulsion to have to finish the story, to know what happens at the end – no matter how badly off the rails the whole thing is going. This is, however, a reaction one forms over the course of reading the Alvin Maker series, and Seventh Son is mostly exempt from such feelings.

The title refers to the myth of a seventh son of a seventh son being a wizard – Terry Pratchett incorporates this into his Discworld novels, and Jo Rowling gives it a nod via the Weasley family (it is implied that Arthur is a seventh son, and that Ginny is the seventh child of a seventh child).

In Card’s Frontier America, almost everybody is magical in some way or the other – magic which represents itself in the form of oddball talents called ‘knacks’. But Alvin Maker, as the seventh son of a seventh son, is extremely powerful – his knack is Making (i.e. Creation of stuff).

Because of his potential for greatness, an evil known as the Unmaker keeps trying to kill Alvin from since before he was born. It is up to Peggy, a little girl whose knack is being a Torch (or seer) to foresee the dangers the Unmaker puts in little Alvin’s way and protect him from them.

Seventh Son touches on the way of life for families on the Frontier, weaving his ideas of a magical world into an already familiar tapestry. So far, so good. He also takes on religion – the Unmaker is a parallel to the Devil, or Satan, or Lucifer or whatever we want to call him, and he’s fighting to destroy Creation. As a Maker, it’s Alvin’s job to to keep creating as a way of fighting the Unmaker, but it’s made clear that it’s not a battle he’d ever win in a definitive way. Just something he’s got to keep doing. All this is told to Alvin by Taleswapper (an alternate history version of William Blake), a wandering storyteller who collects stories – personal tales – and tells them to other people.

It is also strongly implied that organized religion is really the work of the Unmaker, promoting evil through its good intentions.

There are references to the Native American tribes and the battles of the settlers with them, but this is only properly dealt with in detail from Red Prophet (second book in the series) onwards.

There are also supposed to be a number of parallels to Mormonism, but I don’t know anything about that, so I didn’t catch any of those parallels. :/

A lot of GR reviewers have complained that this book is merely – and clearly – a set up for the rest of the series, and they would be right. Seventh Son is not a stand alone book – there is just a pause at the end, and a promise to continue the tale soon. The first book however, was interesting enough to suck me in – enough that I’d probably have hunted down the second book in the series if I didn’t already have it with me. But – and here’s the catch – the rest of the series doesn’t live up to the promise of Seventh Son (let alone surpass it), so taking up this book (and by extension the rest of the series) would, in my opinion, be a waste of time.

Next In This Series: Tales of Alvin Maker #2 – Red Prophet

Next Review: Dark Tower #1 – The Gunslinger