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Red Prophet by Orson Scott Card

Published by Tor Books

Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel

When the Alvin Maker series first began, it marked a major departure from the typical fantasy of the time. Instead of being set in a pseudo-medieval land vaguely similar to JRR Tolkien's Middle Earth, with elves and dwarves and orcs and trolls and a terrible Dark Lord to fight, it took place in a magical version of pioneer America. Here hexery really worked to ward and beseech, and people each had individual magical talents known as knacks which enabled them to do a certain thing particularly well. Down in the Crown Colonies the English king ruled, having been exiled by the Lord Protector. New England remains under Puritan rule, but between it and the Crown Colonies lies a truncated United States founded by Ben Franklin rather than George Washington, vigorously opposed to slavery and even incorporating the Irri-kwa (Iroquois) as a fully equal state.

And on the western frontier young Alvin Junior, son of a miller, was learning to use the extraordinary powers that came with having been born the seventh son of a seventh son, thirteenth of thirteen living children. Not just learning the mechanics, but the ethics as well, with the help of mentors living on the edge of society -- a whiskey Red by the name of Lolla-wossiky and the wandering storyteller Taleswapper.

As this second volume of the Tales of Alvin Maker begins, young Alvin is nowhere in sight. Instead we're in Carthage City, a rough-and-ready settlement on the Hio, as a disreputable fellow who calls himself Hooch is bringing a barge full of whiskey in to port. Some of it is meant for Whites, especially the hard-drinking types that hang around such a place, but the bulk of it is intended for the Red tribes, the better to weaken them to the white man's gain.

And then we finally see a familiar face from Seventh Son: Lolla-wossiky, the whiskey Red who suddenly appeared in the settlement of Vigor Church and taught Alvin about the ethics of power and the balance of life. Now we get to see the nature of the terrible wound in his soul that Alvin was only able to glimpse, and how it led to his more superficial wounds. Unlike White people, whose magic expresses itself through knacks and the ability to paint hexes and work beseechings, the Red peoples' magic binds them to the green world all around them. They are constantly attuned to the living land and the creatures within it -- but when Bill Harrison shot Lolla-wossiky's father right in front of him, it created an ever-echoing black noise that cut the lad off from the green music of the land and left him in perpetual agony.

Yet he is not entirely without hope, because what is left of his natural harmony with the living earth has been offering him glimpses of a spirit animal to the north of him. He awaits only the proper moment to steal enough whiskey that, if he rations himself strictly, he will be able to keep the black noise in check long enough to get north and find his spirit animal. Except it isn't an animal, but a most peculiar boy who flickers at the edges of his vision.

It's quite interesting to see the major events of Seventh Son retold from a completely different point of view, one steeped in a culture far more removed from our own than the fantasy version of the pioneers we saw in the first volume. The Reds of Card's world have elements of the Noble Savage, but it isn't just taken for granted. Instead, Card seems to have really tried to delve into what would enable a real human being to actually function in the sort of harmony with self and nature that is generally ascribed to the Noble Savage -- not to mention that his Red characters are complex individuals with strengths and flaws that drive their actions the same way the White characters are driven by their individual strengths and flaws.

At the end of Seventh Son, Alvin was supposed to be going back to the town of his birth to be apprenticed to Makepeace Smith and learn the trade of the smithy. However, when Taleswapper asked the torch girl Peggy about it, she warned that she foresaw not a single path which would bring young Alvin to his apprenticeship on the appointed day, and far too many in which his life ended prematurely with a Red hatchet in his skull. But the two of them swore to protect the lad so long as there was breath in their bodies.

Thus the bulk of the book deals with Alvin's trip to the town of Hatrack River and how it went awry. This is of course a time when travel overland meant slow progress on foot or perhaps on the back of a horse. Alvin is still young enough that he is not going to be sent alone into the howling wilderness, so his next-older brother Measure accompanies him. They've hardly left home before they run afoul of a band of painted-up Reds who take them prisoner and begin to torture them. It's only because of a few judicious uses of Maker skills on Alvin's part that Measure is saved from being crippled -- letting these angry Reds know that something very strange is afoot.

And then Alvin and Measure are rescued, but not by White soldiers. Instead it's another group of Reds, led by Ta-kumsaw and Lolla-wossiky, now calling himself Tenska-tawa and preaching for all the Red peoples to stop letting the White man set them one against another and enslave them with whiskey and other White goods, to return to the traditions of the green music of the earth and live as children of the land. At first it appears that Alvin and Measure are their prisoners, for the Shaw-nee drive the two White lads hard in their cross-country trek. But as Alvin uses his Maker skills to imitate the Red man's attunement with nature and learns to run as lightly and quickly through the forest as they do, their relationship changes. Alvin and Measure are steadily woven into the Shaw-nee community, and at length Tenska-tawa takes young Alvin on a spiritual journey to see his purpose in life.

It is in this moment that Alvin sees for the first time the Crystal City, and is immediately awed both by its beauty and by the idea that he should somehow be responsible for bringing it into existence. Tenska-tawa tells him about seeing it in many other forms, suggesting that it has existed in the past in other forms, only to be destroyed, and Alvin's task may be as much reconstruction or restoration as creation.

But all is not well in the society Alvin and Measure left behind. Remember their horse, the one that was sent running with Ta-kumsaw's name rudely carved into the saddle? It's been found and recognized, and the Whites have drawn the intended conclusion that the boys have been murdered by the Shaw-nee. So now they're connecting up with Governor Bill Harrison to do something about the Red menace once and for all.

It's very interesting to see Card's handling of the traditional mythos of the pioneers taming of the West inverted as the betrayal of the Red man and his harmony with the living land. A lesser author might have made it merely a Politically Correct lecture about the wickedness and eternal guilt of European-Americans, but Card keeps in sight all the complexities of human beings in action. Yes, some of the Whites are willfully wicked and greedy, but many of them are just people trying to make a better life for themselves, who can't see the Red man's claim upon the land because it doesn't use the same semiotics that they use, of surveyed property, of plowed fields and permanent towns, and thus they transgress not out of willful malice but out of ignorance of the language of the land and a hunter-gatherer culture's relationship to it. Even the massacre at Prophetstown, atrocious though it may be, has its element of tragic misunderstanding, a sense that if only things could've been slowed down long enough to get the two sides to bridge the reality gaps between them, the enormous loss of life could have been prevented.

Thus, while Seventh Son ended on a note of hope, this volume ends on one of profound regret.

Review posted August 19, 2010.

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