on August 31, 2005
I felt a little let down by "Crystal City." The quality of the writing and of the characters is still excellent: that's not the issue. But it just didn't feel very climactic for what seems like it ought to be the last book in the series. Maybe if it hadn't been named "Crystal City" I'd have felt better about it being just a link in the chain.
I also found myself scratching my head and wondering if I'd missed a book in between Heartfire and Crystal City. There seems to have been at least a year in between the stories, which in any of itself isn't a problem except that they keep referring to things that happened - the death of a baby, Arthur's breakthrough, meeting Abe and Coz, rescuing a boatload of slaves, the splitting up of the Verily / Fink / Alvin / Arthur / Audobon crew, Peggy's acquaintence with Squirel and Moose... there seems to be a good book or two in there that we didn't get to read. Maybe he will fill in some gaps later the way he's done with Ender's universe?
Finally, the Crystal City story itself just didn't seem to be long enough. There was so much going on that didn't really get much detail - especially the role of Abe, Coz, and Verily in getting the charter, the invasion of Mexico, Arthur's return, the journey north, etc. It almost felt like some of those details were too boring to write about... but that doesn't make sense considering the time he spent on similar topics in "Journeyman" and even "Heartfire."
The book ended in such a way that we were left hopeful for another installment. I certainly hope we get one: as a climax for a really great series, this just didn't fit the bill.
on February 4, 2004
In _The Crystal City_, Orson Scott Card's 6th book in the Alvin Maker series, Alvin starts an epidemic and builds a bridge, Arthur Stuart gets kissed and runs to Mexico and back, Calvin postures, Verily sulks and Margaret sighs. That's about it.
Before embarking on _The Crystal City_ I went back and reread the entire series, as it had been five years or so since I was through them last and I wanted to be sure everything was fresh. I was, once more, delighted by the voice with its smooth use of early American colloquialism, impressed by the obvious knowledge of history and folklore that went into them, captivated by the engaging characters and astounded by the scope of the work. "Boy," I thought, "This is one Great Series!"
Then I came to the current volume. And I was really disappointed. It purely does not compare with its companions in any way. The story was frankly boring and the Biblical allegory--which was very suave and subtle in the earlier works-- was just ham-handed. I don't object to Alvin's spending the entire book leading a group of slaves to freedom, but it doesn't make for very interesting action and the subplots weren't developed enough to alleviate the tedium. The language was mundane, without any of the personality I had come to expect. The earlier books seemed to be told by a breathing human being; TCC resembled a recitation by a history prof counting the days until retirement. The characters were flat. The characters we had seen before were not developed any further and the new characters were not developed at all. In previous books even minor characters had personalities and stories, but only lip service was paid to that here: note the stunning difference between _Heartfire's_ Denmark and TCC's Old Bart. Historical characters were inserted to fill the formula, but not even Abe Lincoln really added anything. And as for Papa Moose and Mama Squirrel, well, I read the reason for them in the Acknowledgements, but I personally think using those names was a REALLY BAD CHOICE. Every reference to "moose and squirrel" catapaulted me into a realm that had nothing to do with Alvin Maker and Co. I'm sure you know the one I mean.
I don't mind that TCC started about five years after _Heartfire_ and that Alvin was in a really different place than one might have expected. I do mind that the story behind this wasn't really told. It's as if Tolkein had finished FOTR with leaving Lorien, skipped TTT altogether and started ROTK with "Well, now that Saruman's been vanquished..." There was just a huge chunk missing, and I think that chunk would have been a great deal more interesting than the story Card chose to tell. It almost seems to me that Card has written himself into a corner with this series; his characters can no longer grow and change and have real human experiences because that might tarnish them. Good and bad are established, but there are no longer any of the shades of grey that make people interesting.
Though TCC ends with some events that foreshadow a possible cotinuation of this series, it also sums up enough -- with "curtain call" appearances by most major characters fromt he series -- that Card could stop here without much harm done. Unless he makes some radical choices for this universe, I hope he does stop. I really wouldn't like to see this series devolve any further. The spark is gone and laying this series to rest before it decays would be a mercy.
on February 16, 2004
The sixth book of the Tales of Alvin Maker feels a lot like the increasingly tired books at the end of the Ender series. It's not that the book is boring--I read it in two sittings--but although the plot is fine, it's simply not as well crafted as the earlier volumes in the series, and it shows. For one, the earlier books had a distinctive narrator, a sort of folksy presence that was clearly of the world of the book, but that is completely absent from this book, making the book read more like notes for a screen play than a coherent whole. Secondly, there's no overarching plot arc that makes this book stand alone the way the others in the series could--it feels more like the collected other adventures of Alvin Maker, and not like a coherent whole where the plot tensions pull the book to its conclusions. Third, the book has a strange quality that it does not take place immediately after the events in Heartfire. There's nothing wrong with that, per se--it might even be interesting, except that in this case a lot of the emotional tension from the previous book is just gone. Peggy and Alvin are separated again, their baby stillborn, and although you are told about Alvin's guilt in not being able to save his child you don't get to see it, and it carries little weight--it feels for most of the book that they've drifted apart, but I'm not sure that's the intention. At the end of the last book, Verily Cooper has found new love, but Purity is almost entirely gone from this book, with some hints that their romance went nowhere. Calvin is back, but all the rapproachment between him and Alvin is gone--which is probably realistic, but very unsatisfying after the last book where we see a seachange in Alvin's brother. Because of the flat narrative voice and this bizarre missing chapters, the book tells us a lot, but shows us nothing, and as a result, we don't feel at all like we're there, the way Card mananges to do in the previous five books. The first five books are so exceptional, so satisfying, that it is probably not surprising that it was hard to sustain it further, but I hope that if Card gives his readers another installment, he will care more about the craft that makes his best books worth reading over and over again.
on November 27, 2003
Alvin Maker, or Smith, still after five books has not found himself or the Crystal City of which he dreams. Sent to Nueva Barcelona (New Orleans) by his wife Peggy, he more or less accidently becomes Moses to an Exodus of slaves and other downtrodden people. With yellow fever and soldiers not far behind, and the seemingly impenetrable Mizzippi ahead, he must try to lead these people to freedom. Meanwhile, his uncontrollable younger brother, Calvin, is stirring up trouble on an expedition to conquer Mexico . . .
Good, but not great, continuation of the Alvin Maker series. As you can tell by the title, Alvin finally begins his Crystal City (and not surprisingly, since much in this series parallels Latter Day Saints beliefs, it seems to be on the site of Nauvoo, Illinois.)
While we meet Abraham Lincoln in this series (an Abe who apparently did not buy a barrel of law books at a cheap price to enable him to study law on his own), Lincoln's explanation as to why he doesn't have a last name reflecting his profession is weak. Most of the people who don't have such last names are historical characters in our world (William Henry Harrison, for example). It's not a new complaint, but--Card should have thought this through. He's inventive enough.
With Alvin seeming to parallel Joseph Smith, and with his people defying the U.S. to some extent, the groundwork seems to be laid for this universe's equivalent of the U.S. attack on Nauvoo and death of Joseph Smith, which eventually led to Brigham Young and his people's trek to Utah. How this will play out in Card's works should be interesting.
Finally, Card really, really, should update his political maps to show the developments he has mentioned through the series--the new states, the closing-off of the Trans-Mizzippi, etc. The maps are the same as at the start of the series, though this book's version does show Springfield and Crystal City--the latter on the WEST bank of the Mizzippi. It's more an annoyance than anything else.
Recommended, if you've read the previous five.
It's been five years since the last installment in this series, which is a long time without fuel to maintain the energy and enthusiasm this series originally engendered. As an alternate history where people have 'knacks' for doing things, from repairing barrels and bones to seeing the future, its fire came from its ideological underpinnings, of the fight between those who build and those who destroy, of machine versus nature, of the rights of all to be self-directing autonomous individuals versus the cultural assumption that some are better than others, and those inferior beings are suited only for slavery. While much of this underpinning is highly relevant to this latest installment, it does not seem to bring with it the deep emotional involvement that would have made this story come alive.
Alvin Maker is the prime mover here, a man conflicted between his incredible abilities and the knowledge that regardless of how much he builds, however much good he can accomplish in the world, the Unmaker will be following right behind, tearing down all he can accomplish. Alvin's dream of a city built by Makers seems further and further off, as he becomes embroiled in actions to save many of the slaves and poor of the city of Nueva Barcelona (New Orleans) from both yellow fever (that he unwittingly helped to spread) and its other bigoted and superstitious citizens. Almost as a side plot, his brother Calvin becomes embroiled in a foray by Steve Austin and Jim Bowie to conquer the Mexica, with Calvin's typical disregard for the consequences or moral rightness of his actions.
The depiction of the historical characters that dot this novel, from Abe Lincoln to Bowie, is definitely problematic. All of them seem to have no depth, all are portrayed with only the sheen of their legendary characteristics, from Abe's honesty to Bowie's fighting drive, with no signs of other human foibles that would have made these stick-figures into something real. The plot itself is reasonable, a modern alternate version of Exodus with Alvin as Moses, and its final resolution points the way towards where this series may ultimately be headed. But I found as I was reading that I was looking for something more concrete to the action; too little description, not enough supporting details, an almost dreamlike feel to what could have been a very gritty slice of life under very unappetizing conditions.
While Card has a long list of those people who helped check this manuscript for continuity errors with earlier volumes, and obviously their efforts did help eliminate most of those kinds of problems, I did find it a little amusing that the maps on the end papers clearly show Alvin's Crystal City located on the wrong side of the Mississippi river.
Card does manage to make most of his moral points without clobbering you over the head with them, and some of the final section shows at least a willingness to concede that not all that is man-made is bad or that all that is nature-derived is good. But the fire that drove the earlier books, of their implied Great War between good and evil, is not here. Clearly, Card is planning at least one more book in this set, where perhaps the anticipated and long delayed war against slavery will combine with Alvin's dream of a better world to form a heart-wrenching finale. I do hope so.
--- Reviewed by Patrick Shepherd (hyperpat)
on April 23, 2012
First, some background on my experience with the whole series: I picked up the Alvin Maker books because I'd just finished the 8th book in the Ender/Shadow series, and was generally happy with all of them. The first three in this series (Seventh Son, Red Prophet, Prentice Alvin) were incredible, and presented rich possibilities for a great sequence, which I assumed would obviously be 7 books. OSC really had some good ingredients for a memorable good/evil epic.
Then came the 4th book with its insufferable courtroom drama, poorly-handled romance, annoying developments with Calvin and complete lack of the things which made the first three so great. Well, OK, I thought, maybe he's just got to lay some groundwork for the rest of the series. People love him, people hate him, OK I get it. Now get back to the awesomeness for book 5, please. Instead, what do we get? Another courtroom drama, a near complete lack of maker awesomeness, and a front cover (ppb) that looks like a freaking trashy romance novel, so terrible that I can't read it near other people without being made fun of.
Almost despondent, I get book six (The Crystal City). Good, I think: finally we can get back to the maker awesomeness. In one sense, it's there. The bridge, the river, the bricks (don't want to spoil anything by being too specific here) were pretty cool. But as a whole, I was again disappointed! I can't necessarily put a finger on it, but at the end I was just thinking "Hmm, so that's it, huh. If he ever makes a book 7 I'll read it, I guess, but if not, meh."
I hated the entire Calvin plot right from the beginning, and Peggy is only a good character when she's around, not when she's controlling events from afar or writing stupid love letters. Arthur Stuart had some real potential to be a great character, but since this book takes place several years after the 5th, I think we should have seen more maker awesomeness from him than we got.
Furthermore, at this point the use of real historical figures, which at first was pretty cool (Blake, Tecumseh, Harrison) has really started to get tiresome. I put up with John Adams and Daniel Webster as essentially being placeholders in 4&5. I put up with the long ridiculous asides with Adams mentally stacking himself up to the other statesmen, which seemed to me just another way for OSC to explain to us that he hates Thomas Jefferson. I put up with Balzac and Audubon, because at least they had some funny lines. But here, we have Abe Lincoln playing no useful role whatsoever, and Jim Bowie as a one-dimensional bully. Either give these people some life, or just use one of your stock puppet characters instead; you can't make a character instantly interesting by making them a famous person.
So now, looking back on it, the progress of the Alvin Maker series gives me context: I can see why I had slight misgivings with the Ender series. It's because the ending sucked, and all the things which made the first two books so good is just gone in the last two. Same for the Shadow series. There's nothing worse than an author who can't fully develop their good ideas.
I had to go back and see how long it had been since Uncle Orson had published the last volume in the Tales of Alvin Maker, but I waited until after I read Book 6, "The Crystal City." It had been about five years, but without ever going back and jogging my memory I was able to pick up the narrative thread in the ongoing story. Besides, I was encouraged by both the title and the cover art for this novel that Alvin was finally going to take that golden plough out of his poke and finally lay the ground for his city, and in that regard I am not disappointed. However, this is still not the climax of the tale.
Orson Scott Card's Tales of Alvin Maker series is set in an alternative America where some people are born with knacks, a magical ability that is both a great gift and a deep burden. Alvin, the seventh son of a seventh son, is a "maker," who can make things and fix things, using his doodlebug to get a sense of what needs to be done. After the death of his newborn son, Alvin is persuaded by his wife, Peggy (a "torch," who can see the various paths into the future that a life might take), to go to Barcy (the New Orleans of this world), and so he travels down the Mizzizippy with young Arthur Stuart on a flatboat with Abe Lincoln and his friend Coz.
This matters because while Alvin Maker has his dream of the Crystal City, Peggy is concerned with preventing the great war that she sees coming over the issues of slavery. In this America the United States is put one of several "countries" competing for the North American continent. The south consists of Crown Colonies, Spain controls Florida and Nueva Barcelona (Louisiana), and the French still have Canada. Meanwhile, the descendants of the Aztecs are still performing human sacrifices in Mexica and Alvin's friend, Tenskwa-Tawa, the Red Prophet, controls the lands to the west of the Mizzippy. Beyond the Hio Territory where Alvin was born in Hatrack River, the Wobbish Territory where Vigor Church and Carthage City can be found, and even beyond the Noisy River Territory, Alvin needs to find a place for his Crystal City. Because when he saves a single life in Barcy, the act changes everything and forces a series of issues. The establishment of the Crystal City is obviously a major moment in the series, but clearly it is not the big payoff.
As always, it is interesting to see Uncle Orson's take on some of the figures of American's history. If he liked John Adams, he likes Abraham Lincoln any more. However, Stephen Austin and Jim Bowie do not fare well, and Alvin has to worry about the latter almost as much as he does about his younger brother Calvin. I know there are those who want to read these stories as a religious allegory, but I have enjoyed taking the narrative at face value and I remain ignorant enough of the major tenets of Mormon theology so that I do not see anything more here than the American ideal dressed up in alternative clothing. However, I find it hard to believe that there is only one volume left in the series, because there seem to be too many threads left to weave together.
on February 27, 2004
Like the Ender seriers did with Children of the Mind and the Homecoming series did with Earthborn, the Alvin Maker series sputters to a conclusion (hopefully) in The Crystal City.
Not that this book was terrible, but it just didn't seem to have any purpose other than gettin Alvin and his followers to the Crystal City, and there just wasn't anything interesting enough that happened along the way. I think they were all too good, and too powerful, that you knew they would always do the right thing, and you also knew that they always could, so there wasn't any doubt about the conclusion.
If you've read the rest of the series, you'll probably want to read this book just for closure, just don't expect much.
Its been a long time since I read the earlier books in this series, so many of the details of the earlier events have become fuzzy. Consequently, I was concerned about picking this up and finding myself confused by jumping into the middle of the story. Happily, this book stands well enough on its own that this didn't happen. Card continues to be a terrific storyteller, with compelling characters who make you care about what happens to them. His alternate history, based on a reality in which magic is real, is also convincing and provides a thoroughly interesting backdrop to his story. However, it is the character interactions in this book that are the most enjoyable. The dialog is filled with verbal swordplay that is both biting and funny, and which also sounds true to life. The only criticism I can offer for this book is that the ending, while hopeful, is also so open ended that it practically screams that Card intends to continue writing books for this series.
on March 25, 2014
This was another very entertaining addition to the Alvin novel. I assumed it was the final volume because I purchased all that were available, so after being incredibly disappointed by the ending, I was pleased to learn it wasn't the last, but crushed to learn that others had been waiting since 2003 for volume 7. Eleven years! I'm relieved to have discovered it so much later as I can't imagine the frustration. Hopefully, 2014 is the year for both this novel and also his Mither Mashes "Gate" trilogy to serve up the final volumes. Otherwise, I WILL wait!