Seventh Son by Orson Scott Card
Fantasy (1987 - 272 pp.)
This is my second Orson Scott Card review on this blog. The first was Ender's Shadow, all the way back in June 2012. This is the first book for the Alvin Maker series I've reviewed, in large part because it's the first one in the series and the first one I've read.*
Seventh Son takes place in an alternate history of the United States of America in the 1700s-1800s in which the US had only started, and in which the folk magic of the time is all real. "Heartfire" is the idea of there being fire in our hearts/souls, taken literally, allowing Peggy to track people using an early modern heat sensor. Out-of-ordinary, or out-of-body, events are debated: are they from the devil, or simply inaccurately reported? England has a Lord Protector (9), suggesting that perhaps the Restoration under Charles II never occurred, although there are Crown Colonies as well. The map at the start of the book shows just how different the US could have been.
Throughout Seventh Son, characters search for meaning. Among Card's wittier moments - and there are many of them - is when Taleswapper explains his journal entries to Alvin Miller Junior, the series's protagonist, and one of them is from Benjamin Franklin. Franklin's greatest achievement, in this world, is the creation of the word "American". (154-155) The idea that a word can unify people is one of Taleswapper's most powerful observations.
Much of that meaning comes through conflict between the drolly named preacher Philadelphia Thrower, of Anglo-Scottish origin, and the Millers. This symbolizes a conflict between paganism and Christianity generally, at least in Seventh Son's versions. "Paganism" generally, the agglomeration of beliefs and superstitions various characters hold, is placed in stark contrast to Christianity... until suddenly it isn't. Alvin Junior has an experience like breaking the ridgebeam: is this the work of the devil, or a simple coincidence? If a preacher like Thrower says it is the former, he vindicates the "pagans'" beliefs. If it is the latter, how did it happen? The sparkled snakelike beast that visits Thrower as "the Visitor" later in the book complicates matters further. Most mainstream Christian faiths would assume Thrower had been sleep-deprived when he saw the beast, yet another character, named Armor of God(!!!), sees the beast as well. Throughout Seventh Son, the combination of frontier, faith and fantasy constantly bends reality.
Fear of the unknown expands into the constant worry that "Reds" (meaning to be an intentionally archaic term for Native Americans,** although I had initially thought they were communists) would scalp anyone who ventured into the woods at night. Those scalps would then be traded to the French for metal. Why the French would place monetary value on scalps is something no character is able to explain - which immediately calls into question whether it's even happening. Indeed, not a single "Red" or Franco-American is ever seen in the entire book. Tales like these force the reader into the unknown-ness of the American frontier, where every tale can be believed or disbelieved. By the end of the book, Alvin Junior possessing magical power becomes more realistic than the French holding ill intentions toward Anglo-American or Swedish-American settlers.
Yesterday, when I was walking by High Park, I saw a sign that appears to immortalize the book's iconic opening scene: the Millers' horse-drawn carriage nearly sinking in the river. Alvin Miller is a seventh son, and his wife Faith is pregnant with what could be the Millers' seventh son. That makes Alvin Junior a seventh son of a seventh son: the powers this confers upon him are vast. Alvin Senior's eldest son, Vigor, aids greatly in helping the carriage out of the river. During my walk in High Park yesterday, I came across this sign:
Had the person who wrote "VIGOR" on the sign read Seventh Son? I certainly hope so.
Seventh Son is a page-turner, yet like while I read Card's classic Ender's Game so many years ago, I never stopped thinking.
Ease of Reading: 8
Educational Content: 4
*The edition I own, found here, also includes the 1988 sequel Red Prophet. I have not yet read Red Prophet due to the Book One Effect.
**In Canada, where I live, we would say "First Nations".