Alvin Journeyman by Orson Scott Card
Published by Tor Books
Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel
This volume of the Tales of Alvin Maker marks a major shift in the narrative voice. The first three books were told to us in the folksy yet at times mystical voice of Taleswapper, a wandering storyteller who carried a book in which he had people each write down the most important thing they had seen or done in their lives. An alert reader would eventually discover that he was that world's William Blake, who in our world was a mystic writer.
However, the first thing the new narrative voice tells us is Taleswapper's encounter with Alvin's sullen and spiteful brother Calvin, trying to talk some sense in him. Calvin is angry that Alvin won't teach him to be a Maker, and Taleswapper is trying to get Calvin to see that Alvin is, but that Calvin isn't ready to learn the right lessons from him. But the more Taleswapper points out Calvin's gross flaws of character, the angrier Calvin becomes, and the more Calvin becomes determined to force Taleswapper to tell him the things he wants to hear. Finally he lets vent his rage with his fists upon the old man's frail body.
So Calvin takes off, glad that he needs not fear pursuit, since Tenskwa-tawa's curse upon the people of Vigor Church means they dare not leave the area lest they encounter strangers. He's decided that this land is too small for him, and he's going to someplace where he can meet people powerful enough to teach to become what he wants. So off he goes to the east, but even the settled lands on the coast are still too raw for his liking, and it's time to find himself passage across the sea to the Old World. Which he proceeds to do with his usual combination of cunning and cruelty.
And Taleswapper's ill-fated heart-to-heart talk with Calvin about the morality and ethics of the Maker's power sets the tone for the entire novel. Even in Seventh Son morals and ethics were brought front and center as Alvin was first learning to control his Maker abilities and use them at will, and used them in anger to play a boyish prank on his sisters. But now more complex ethical issues are coming into play, ones that go beyond the personal and interpersonal to touch the whole of a society and how it moves into the future.
The ancient Greeks had their Fates, three women who spun, measured, and cut the threads of each man's life. But those threads were treated in isolation. In Card's imagined alternate America, the Fate is not a spinner of thread, but a weaver of cloth, intricately intertwining the fibers of individual lives into the fabric of history. Here and there she can change things ever so slightly, move a thread of warp or weft just a little, but it is never without consequences, and often an effort to save the life of someone doomed to die may result instead in dozens or hundreds of deaths a year or two in the future.
And it is to this Weaver of the Fabric of Lives, Becca by name, that Peggy Larner who was once little Peggy Guester comes to talk about the ethics of social change and the paths that history is taking. Ever since her mother was killed in the fight to save her adopted brother Arthur from slavers, Peggy has been working in her own small, quiet way to fight slavery. Under the cover of teaching master courses to schoolmasters and advanced students, she has been subtly drawing people's attentions to the evils of slavery. She never criticizes it as an institution, but instead draws attention to particular abuses, and when her interlocutors agree that this particularly disliked master's management of his slaves is abominable, shows them how the potential for abuse is inherent in slavery.
Yet Becca can see in the fight against slavery the seeds of a terrible war, perhaps in the next generation, perhaps a generation or two later. Thus the two women wrangle out the ethics of bringing about social change, particularly when an action intended to ameliorate harm in the near future may well lead to changes that will bring about even worse harm a generation or two in the future. A conflict that is averted now may instead fester so that when it actually does break out in fighting, there will be all the more pent-up anger and resentment behind it and thus even less ability to see the other side as people rather than Complete Monsters, resulting in less willingness to accept anything short of complete victory.
Meanwhile, Alvin is becoming increasingly frustrated by his efforts to teach his friends, family and neighbors to do the things he can. He had thought that teaching the Maker's art to an entire community was part of the process of building the wondrous Crystal City he saw in a vision as a boy, but now he's thinking that things aren't quite so simple. Most people will be able to get a little way, but then they get stuck and become frustrated by their inability to go any further. And worse, some of them begin to blame him, leading to some interpersonal ugliness.
So Alvin heads west, accompanied by the half-Black lad Arthur Stuart whom he protected from Slave Finders by doing a cell-deep Maker change so that the lad no longer matched the cachet of hair and nail clippings his former master took from him at birth. Young Arthur's still struggling to get used to the way in which that change also changed his knack of communication, which at first he sees only as a loss, a diminution.
Alvin had been hoping that he at least would be granted an exception to the magical barrier which Tenskwa-tawa placed upon the Mississippi in order to bar White people from entering the western lands, which henceforth would be reserved for the Red people alone, where they could maintain their ancient ways. But when he arrives, the fog does not part and he has no choice but to turn back. So he too begins a period of travel, which ultimately takes him back to the place of his birth.
Hatrack River has changed since his apprenticeship came to such a harshly dramatic end. There's a new postmistress, a notorious gossip who seems to delight in the way in which her position permits her to collect and disseminate all kinds of problematical bits of information about other people. But she's just a minor annoyance. Far worse is the bitterness of Alvin's former master.
Makepeace Smith was always a hard man, working Alvin far harder than was customary for an apprentice. But now he's going around claiming that the golden plow which Alvin created as part of his journeyman test was stolen.
Suddenly Alvin's in jail, facing a trial that has the possibility of destroying his reputation, making it impossible to fulfill his life's work. But even as he's despairing of being able to clear his good name, he gets a surprising ally in the form of an English barrister, Verily Cooper, who's heard of him and wants to learn more about his Making. For malicious though Alvin's brother Calvin may be, he did manage to do one good deed amidst all his mischief while he was in England, talking to Verily and convincing him to travel west.
But it's a tangled web of lies they have to fight, and the Unmaker is taking a more direct hand in it than usual. A most extraordinary situation that must be unmasked if Alvin is to escape the destruction being planned for him.
This book is so good that I sat up until 2AM because I literally couldn't put it down. Luckily I was able to sleep in the next morning. There are some really neat tidbits in this novel, like the verse in the song about Alvin's journeying which concerns a dream he had and is clearly a reference to JRR Tolkien's Lord of the Rings. It raises some interesting issues about subcreation that I hope that Card will explore further in later volumes of this series.
Review posted September 10, 2010.
Buy Alvin Journeyman (Tales of Alvin Maker, Book 4) from Amazon.com