In the Tales of Alvin Maker series, an alternate-history view of an America that never was, Orson Scott Card postulated what the world might have been like if the Revolutionary War had never happened, and if folk magic actually worked. In Card’s books, America is divided into several provinces, with the Spanish and French still having a strong presence in the New World. The emerging scientific revolution in Europe has led many people with ‘talent’ (i.e. magical powers) to emigrate to North America, bringing their prevailing magic with them. Race and culture seem to shape the way that the abilities of people of different groups develop. For example, white Europeans have cultivated skills that we might recognize from the folklore and traditions of colonial America and western Europe; Native Americans align themselves with the rhythms of nature but also use blood to perform some of their magic; and people of African descent channel their skills into creating objects of power, in a manner somewhat similar to the beliefs and practices of voodoo. While many people in Card’s world have a limited supernatural ability, or ‘knack’ to do some task to almost perfection, Alvin Miller, who is the seventh son of a seventh son, discovers that his knack far surpasses those of everyone else. In particular, he can change both living and nonliving matter simply by force of will (hence the title ‘Maker’). This power comes at a cost, however; not only does Alvin feel a great responsibility to use his power for good, but there are forces that actively seek his demise.
The ‘Emberverse’ or ‘Change World’ is the setting for a series of post-apocalyptic novels written by S M Stirling which depict the events following a worldwide cataclysm that causes electricity, guns, explosives, internal combustion engines and steam power to stop working. There are two sets of novels in S M Stirling’s fictional universe. The first, beginning with Island in the Sea of Time, tells of an electrical storm centred over the island of Nantucket which transports it back in time from the 1990s to 1250 BC. The stage is then set for a fascinating contrast (and conflict) between the people from the present and the past, their technology, culture and attitudes. This in itself is a brilliant concept and the Nantucket trilogy has all of the best features of the work of Stirling (who is an amateur military historian). For me, however, it is outshone by the second set of ‘Change’-related novels, which start with Dies the Fire. These tell the other side of the story i.e. what happens to the world that Nantucket island left behind when it is suddenly returned to a medieval level of civilization. The Nantucket trilogy’s central conceit of transporting people from our own world to another time and place is familiar from everything from The Chronicles of Narnia to Buck Rogers in the 25th century. However, I find the concept of people from our own world and time trying to deal with effectively being returned to the middle ages much more interesting and original – at least the way Stirling does it.