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Heartfire by Orson Scott Card

Published by Tor Books

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

Heartfire is the fifth installment in the Alvin Maker series by Orson Scott Card. It marks an important turning point in the overall meta-arc of the series. While the earlier four volumes have had a strong Bildungsroman element, dealing as they did with the struggles of young Alvin to understand his place in the world and the purpose of his extraordinary knack, in this volume he has come into his own as a man and is beginning to shoulder his responsibilities.

The novel contains two major storylines, connected by the focus of both Alvin and his wife Peggy on the long-term future of America. Both of them know that the continent is rapidly approaching a crossroads in history, a point at which things can go one of two ways. One way leads to hope and enlightenment, the building of the Crystal City where people will be able to perfect their souls and become the best they can be. The other way leads to a terrible destructive war that will scar the people of America for generations to come. And at the moment, it is still possible that very small changes, a single person or a small group influenced to make a decision in a particular way, may be able to shift the course of an entire continent's history away from the horrors of total war and toward hope. But nothing is ever simple in life, and what seems to be the best course may not actually be.

Alvin's storyline deals with his great purpose in life, the creation of that Crystal City he glimpsed so long ago in the whirlwind with Tenska-tawa, the Red Prophet. Alvin has learned through bitter experience that his earlier naive hope to simply teach everyone his own ability as a Maker will not work. Try as he might to convey what comes easily to him, nobody among his family were able to learn it save his brother Calvin, and he proved unable to overcome his own petty jealousies and use his Maker abilities for anything else but spite and mischief. Chastened, Alvin has decided that he needs to look at a well-run society and understand how it works in order to better understand what the Crystal City needs to be. He settles upon New England, which is said to be a particular paragon of godliness, with crime almost unknown.

However, there's one major problem with making a trip to New England -- it regards the knacks which the rest of the land regards as perfectly normal as being witchcraft, the work of the devil. To be true, it's been quite a while since there was a witch trial, but there is almost never just one. Once the hue and cry of witchcraft starts up, the inquisitors are hard at work twisting innocent activities into proof positive of vile Satanic activities, and manipulating witnesses into implicating one another. If the accused should prove unwilling to testify against themselves and other, coercive measures are applied until they become willing to say whatever the prosecution wants to hear.

And trouble can start from the most innocent thing. Alvin and his friends are relaxing alongside the banks of the river Euphrates (our Charles River) just outside of Boston, when a young woman comes upon them and is startled to find strangers where she had expected only the possibility of a little restful solitude.

But young Purity Orphan is a particularly problematic resident of the nearby orphanage. She is in fact the daughter of a couple who were condemned and executed as witches, not in Massachussetts, but further west in another part of New England. She was brought here as an infant, her family name taken from her in order to sever her from the taint of her parents' crimes (shades of the way children of people condemned as Enemies of the People were treated in the old Soviet Union during the Great Terror). And what she thinks as nothing more than a habit of close observation of people is in fact a knack for seeing into their hearts, even if not quite to the extent a Torch such as Alvin's wife Peggy can.

And there is something reminiscent of the Great Terror in the way in which the allegations expand into a much larger conspiracy once young Purity makes her first accusations of witchery. She had intended only to scare the strangers a little, to make them understand how frightening it was to be surprised as she was, but the inquisitor Quill quickly takes matters far further. A little use of an illegal knack suddenly becomes a full-blown coven of witches performing vile incestuous rituals and suborning professors at Harvard University, including none less than Ralph Waldo Emerson (or rather his equivalent in that world), who has been known to question the Puritan doctrine that knacks are the work of the Devil, and instead say that they are just another kind of talent from God, good or evil according to how one uses them.

Where it might have continued beyond those wild accusations is uncertain, had Alvin and Verity not banked on the possibility that decent men could be roused to call a halt to it, to turn their attentions elsewhere, and a decent judge (none less than John Adams, who in our world was a Massachussetts delegate to the Continental Congress and ultimately the second President of the United States of America) might be willing to listen to facts instead of the drumbeats of hysteria. The focus upon decent men as the bulwark against mass hysteria brings to mind Joseph Nye Welch's famous line to Senator McCarthy, "Have you left no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you no sense of decency?"

But Verity wants to go further, to not just win an acquittal for Alvin and make sure Purity walks free, but to demolish the entire legal basis for witch-hunting. And that is a very risky undertaking, since it will involve laying bare the fears upon which witch-hunting feeds, the group psychology that turns good people's instincts against them and leads them to turn upon others and blame them for problems. And it will also threaten the power of the professional witch-hunters, something they will fight with all the power at their disposal, which is considerable.

The second storyline moves in parallel with the first, and from time to time intertwines thematically with it, focusing on a different kind of threat to the ability of free men and women of good will to create a future of peace and prosperity in which people can seek to realize their higher selves. Alvin's wife Peggy, a Torch (able to see people's futures through their heartfires) has forseen a terrible war over slavery, one at least as destructive as the Civil War of our own world, and seeks to move people's choices away from that by contacting the people who oppose slavery in Camelot, capital of the Crown Colonies.

However, her very first meeting with Lady Ashworth, leader of the Ladies Against Property Rights in Persons, the foremost anti-slavery organization and the wife of an important official of the royal court, goes disastrously sour. Peggy no sooner begins to converse with this woman than it becomes painfully obvious that Lady Ashworth's opposition to slavery is a sham, not a real moral conviction. She plays at watering her garden, but only because the slaves have been deliberately sabotaging their work, killing the most expensive plants by overwatering them. But she brushes off the possibility of hiring help to do the work currently performed by house slaves with a patently false line about the unavailability of money.

No, Lady Ashworth and her cronies are primarily interested in creating the appearance of an amelioration of slavery in order to placate countries that find the institution barbaric and are pushing for the withdrawal of diplomatic relations and trade. Rather like the victorious independent Confederacy of Harry Turtledove's Great War: American Front, they plan to bring about cosmetic changes in the law while providing no real improvement in the dignity or social and economic standing of their servile class.

However, Peggy is not going to give up, even after that bitter disappointment. Ever since she first arrived in Camelot, she has been puzzled by how the heartfires of the Black slaves are shielded from her Torch talent and their spirits seem oddly subdued. On the surface it might seem to be nothing more than the continual brutality of their living situation beating them down to nothing. But her knack gives her hints that something far more sinister is afoot, and she begins to investigate.

While the White people of Europe work magic individually, through the knacks of their hands and their senses, and the Red people of America connect to the magical through all of nature in the endless green song of life, the Black people of Africa bind magic into objects of power. This power they have brought with them to the New World in the slave ships that have transported them across the Atlantic, and someone has been collecting talismans that somehow bind a part of their souls and take them away, whether for safekeeping or for some maleficent scheme Peggy cannot determine.

Even as Peggy is trying to sort out what is going on, her brother-in-law Calvin arrives with his French buddy Honoré (Honoré de Balzac, the writer), looking for trouble. It doesn't take long for Calvin to thoroughly annoy Peggy with his usual character flaws. But then he decides to take a look into the situation using his doodlebug, a sort of externalized attention that he can use to look where he cannot go bodily. Only he gets too close to the conjure-man who's doing it and suddenly his doodlebug is captured, leaving his body untenanted and slowly decaying toward death.

Suddenly Peggy is desperately trying to save the life of the brother-in-law who's always driven her to distraction, whom she foresees as the betrayer and killer of her beloved Alvin, but whom she cannot kill or allow to die lest she lose Alvin's love and respect forever. But the problem quickly proves to be beyond her capacity to resolve, and she must appeal to her husband in hopes that his Maker knack might prevail. However, Alvin is now in the middle of a trial upon which may well depend the future of jurisprudence in not only New England, but the Protectorate of England as well -- thus tying together the two storylines in an agonizing choice with a most surprising resolution.

It is possible to say that it's almost too easy, since nothing irrevokably terrible happens to any of the major characters. In fact, it's even possible to say that the way in which Alvin uses his knack to resolve the New England storyline constitutes a trick ending, revealing the desperate problem to be no problem at all and casually flicking it aside. But the real interest of the story is in the process by which Alvin and especially Peggy thread their way through choices that seem small and personal but may well be creating a hinge upon which the history of an entire continent may turn -- and all the time knowing that even a trivial miscalculation may have disastrous consequences a few decades later. At the same time, they strive mightily to avoid sacrificing non-consenting individuals to the Great Idea, whether it be the orphaned daughter of people falsely accused of witchcraft or a kindly old serving-woman who could be falsely accused of having revealed family secrets to an outsider.

Review posted August 8, 2010

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