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.
Card writes in an engaging manner which evokes early American folk tales like the legend of John Henry Irons and the adventures of Brer Rabbit. What distinguishes the Tales of Alvin Maker from folklore and fairy tales, however, is the epic quality of Card’s work, which makes it in many ways more akin to a fantasy saga. As a Maker, Alvin is an adept being of a kind that has not existed for a thousand years and this is a heavy burden of expectation for a young man to carry. It also attracts some powerful and frightening enemies Alvin’s way. For example, there exists for every Maker an Unmaker – a being of great supernatural evil – who is Alvin’s adversary, and strives to use his brother Calvin against him. During the course of his adventures, Alvin explores the world around him and we, as readers, are drawn into his long journey of discovery. In Alvin’s world it appears that history has taken a number of different turns from the real world. What was historically Colonial America is divided into a number of separate countries, including a smaller United States (with a much stronger Native American influence in its culture and society) between New England and Virginia and extending westwards to Ohio. New England itself is still a colony of a republican England, where the Restoration never occurred and a monarchy, founded by the House of Stuart in exile, exists on the eastern seaboard.
In addition, many of the historical figures that appear in Card’s novels are either caricatures or bear only superficial resemblance to their real world equivalents. Some of these famous figures are also accorded knacks, such as Benjamin Franklin (not a character, but repeatedly mentioned), who is said to have been a Maker, and Napoleon Bonaparte, who has the ability to make others adore and obey him, and to see others’ great ambitions. The Tales of Alvin Maker depict a colourful and vibrant fantasy world that Card uses to explore issues that are normally beyond the scope of the fantasy genre, such as race, slavery and the nature of free will and manifest destiny. The series appears to be heading towards an ultimate confrontation between Alvin and the Unmaker, with the fate of the entire continent, perhaps even the world, hinging on the outcome. Beginning 25 years ago, the Tales of Alvin Maker have proved to be popular and influential, spawning a role-playing game and the Red Prophet comic books. The forthcoming Master Alvin (release date unknown at present) promises to provide an earth-shattering conclusion to the series – which makes this just the right opportunity to catch up on the earlier books!