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The Crystal City: Alvin Maker #6    by Orson Scott Card order for
Crystal City
by Orson Scott Card
Order:  USA  Can
Tor, 2003 (2003)
* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

It's been a long and impatient wait for a new Alvin Maker book. As a longtime fan of Orson Scott Card, I prefer this series even to his remarkable Ender stories. Most of its action occurs in an alternate N. America, in which many have magical knacks and Alvin (the seventh son of a seventh son) has powerful talents, which he has learned to use frugally. It seems to me that Orson Scott Card is both a Maker and an Unmaker of aspects of this world. He has Made 'greensong', a hopeful, affirming notion that speaks to the 'heartfire' in each of us. And I appreciate the way in which he has Unmade history to give a better chance to those who received a raw deal in our reality.

As this sixth adventure opens, Alvin travels with his half black brother-in-law Arthur Stuart. Alvin still grieves over his inability, despite his great powers, to save his baby, born too soon to his wife Peggy. A 'torch' who can see future possibilities, Margaret has spent most of her life trying to keep Alvin alive, and also to prevent the unleashing of a war over slavery. She continues to send Alvin on missions for his own good, and this has become a source of some tension between them. Alvin carries his golden plow, though he is still not sure what to do with it, or how to make the 'Crystal City', of which he has dreamed, into a reality.

Alvin and Arthur have reached Barcy (once New Orleans, now Nueva Barcelona) by Mizzippy steamboat. Along the way they befriended and helped Abe Lincoln and his friend Coz (the banter between each of these pairs is great fun and keeps the story flowing smoothly). By helping a sick woman, the mother of 'Dead Mary' (so called because of her ability to foresee people's deaths), Alvin inadvertently unleashes a cholera epidemic on the city, and then takes responsibility for the lives of its most downtrodden inhabitants, endangered by people's need to assign blame for the disaster. Young Arthur wonders about his own future as 'Alvin's shadow' and is attracted to Dead Mary, who in turn seems fixated on Alvin Maker.

Calvin shows up, continuing to be motivated by corrosive envy of his older, more talented brother, and rationalizing all too well for his own and others' good. With Arthur's inexperienced help (and even a little from Calvin), Alvin creates a bridge of crystal across the river. Like Moses, he sends thousands across and then must seek a more permanent refuge for them. There are some delightfully quirky new characters, from Squirrel and Mouse, who run an illegal orphanage/school in Barcy to La Tia, who tells Alvin in no uncertain terms what power is for. Old friends, like Verily and Tenskwa-Tawa, also show up, as do old enemies Bowie and the Unmaker.

Arthur assists in a plan of Tenskwa-Tawa's to deal with incursions of the bloodthirsty, sacrificing Mexica, and Alvin enlists Abe and Verily's help in creating a safe haven for his refugees. Along the way, he is able to use the plow and he realizes that his dream does not require everyone in the Crystal City to have skills like his own, but that there is another way to form a 'City of Makers'. As the story ends, Alvin's new Eden is growing around him, but it already has serpents in the forms of Calvin and Bowie. Alvin is content, telling us 'I choose to be a maker, because I love the making', but the reader wonders what is ahead for him and for young Arthur.

The Crystal City is an exciting, engaging continuation of a great series, one that acknowledges the evil of which man is capable, but also affirms the power of small individual actions of ordinary people to influence events. I can't wait for Alvin Maker #7 which, given the state of events and its (magical) number, could well be the conclusion.

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