Seventh Son by Orson Scott Card
Published by Tor Books
Reviewed by Leigh Kimmel
In the 1980's, most fantasy literature drew to a greater or lesser degree upon the work of JRR Tolkien, either directly or via the filter of Dungeons & Dragons and other role-playing games. The basic elements might be handled with greater or lesser originality, with the better writers really putting some serious thought into how their worlds worked (as Tolkien himself had, although probably not to the degree of meticulous as is revealed in Tolkien's letters, in which he expounded at length on such minutae as the customs of gift-giving among the hobbits of the Shire), while the lesser lights merely changed names and events sufficiently to avoid difficulties with copyright law. But all of them assumed the same basic setup, with a quasi-feudal Medieval or pseudo-medieval settings and a grand Quest against an evil Dark Lord.
Part of the richness of Tolkien's world was the result of his intimate familiarity with the landscape of England, something that was not part of the lived experience of most of his American imitators. As a result, many of them tended to either produce imitations, giving a copy-of-a-copy effect, or to unthinkingly substitute elements of the American landscape that were jarring to those familiar with the landforms, biota and human occupation patterns of England and continental Europe.
America's own fantastic tradition was thin at best. There were of course the rich traditions of the various native peoples, but most of them were sufficiently alien culturally to the experience of Anglo-American readers to have a resonance more akin to those of non-European traditions such as the folklore of India, China or Japan. The closest homegrown Anglo-American equivalents to the European folk tales were the tall tales of Paul Bunyan and the like, larger than life to the point of absurdity such that heroism and humor became commingled. And the only major literary fantasy tradition firmly rooted in American soil was the dark fantasy/cosmic horror tradition which began with Edgar Allen Poe and carried through Ambrose Bierce to reach its full flowering with H. P. Lovecraft's tales of brooding New England villages in which one generation after another of their inbred families had unnatural relations with eldritch entities. However, all of them had one major weakness in that their author's ability to evoke antiquity was limited by the historical facts of English settlement of the Atlantic seaboard. Or as the saying goes, "an Englishman thinks a hundred miles is a long distance, while an American thinks a hundred years is a long time."
Which made Orson Scott Card's work quite a remarkable change. It was firmly rooted in the American landscape, in the pioneer era that was almost like a secular mythology to Americans of his generation, before Political Correctness made it socially unacceptable to play cowboys and Indians and the like. There was a king, but he was down in the Crown Colonies, a distant and suspect figure for the major characters, who were proud to live in a republic where a man could rise as high as his wits and determination could take him. There was magic, but not the spells and wizardry that readers had come to associate with Tolkien and his various imitators. Instead, we have the folk traditions of hexery and knacks: the first character we meet is a little girl who has the ability to see into the heartfires of living beings, to see not only their attitudes and intentions, but the ever-branching possible futures ahead of them, constantly in flux as they and others make choices which foreclose some possibilities and open new ones (and thus avoiding the problem of prescience as trap which appears in Dune and many other stories dealing with foreknowledge of the future).
Extraordinary as little Peggy's ability may be, she's busy with a very ordinary chore commonly given to pioneer children, gathering eggs. And her chiefmost conflict is between her terror of a vicious old hen and her knowledge that she is supposed to check every single nesting box and retrieve all the eggs. And then her knack gives her a forewarning of a family traveling westward from New England in a covered wagon, even as a storm is swelling the Hatrack River from a harmless stream to a vicious fury. A family with twelve children, six sons and six daughters, and another one on the way.
The supposed powers of the seventh son of a seventh son are threaded through folklore, and there was even a song called "Seventh Son" in which the narrator boasts of his extraordinary powers. In Card's fictional world, it's commonly believed that the seventh son of a seventh son, of thirteen living children, will be a Maker, a person with a particularly powerful knack. Some people claim that Ben Franklin was a Maker -- which gives us a link to our own world, reminding us that we are not in the stereotypical Fantasyland, but a magical version of our own pioneer past, a world where history didn't quite run as it did in our own but many familiar people still lived lives at least somewhat similar to those we find in the history books.
The arrival of the family is a close-run thing -- their wagon is nearly carried away as it crosses the ford in the swollen river, and is saved only by the gallant self-sacrifice of their eldest son. And he somehow finds the strength to hang on in his broken body, caught on a snag of trees, until Peggy's mother releases the beseeching that held the processes of labor and his little brother is safely delivered into the world. And in that moment Peggy sees a multitudes of terrible deaths in the newborn's future, all in water, and amidst them a single slender thread of hope in which he survives to do extraordinary things.
And that's just the first thirty pages. The rest of the book takes up some years later, as young Alvin Junior has grown old enough to come into awareness of his unusual abilities, but only in an unformed way. Strange things happen around him, including near misses where he comes within a hair's breadth of being killed. We've no more than met this youngster than the ridgepole of a church under construction comes crashing down upon him, sure to kill him -- only to break so perfectly that six-year-old Alvin is left sitting unharmed in the middle.
Some of his abilities are under his conscious volition -- and that's where the main thrust of the story goes. Like Tolkien, and unlike so many of his imitators, Card is profoundly interested in morality, and particularly the ethics of power. Tolkien was of course focusing on the seductive nature of a power made by evil and so completely evil in its nature that it distorts everything it touches, but Card is looking at the problem of learning to use a God-given gift of extraordinary power in a godly way when surrounded by continual temptation to use it for selfish gain.
Alvin, being young and mortal, succumbs to the temptation, but in a small and boyish way. And since he is still young and his character unformed, his fall is not a catastrophic one -- but it results in an encounter with the mysterious Shining Man who shows him not just that he has used his power wrongfully, but how and why he strayed from the path, so that he can draw the proper conclusions from what he has been seen rather than simply being ordered to believe. The Socratic method, but from a Red man wounded in both body and soul.
But Alvin's lesson is not yet complete, as he learns in yet another very painful and dangerous lesson, guided by a wise old man full of aphorisms. It's a very interesting, and in many ways very American, look at the problem of power. Instead of rejecting power as being inherently evil, we have the theme of great power in the hands of an ordinary person entailing great responsibility to use it for the benefit of others.
At the very end Card also slips in a scene that weaves in a bit of Latter Day Saints (Mormon) philosophy about the ongoing nature of revelation. It's a very subtle thing, and could almost be missed entirely if the reader isn't looking for it.
Review posted August 19, 2010.
Buy Seventh Son (Tales of Alvin Maker, Book 1) from Amazon.com