Ossus Library Index
Fantasy Index


A fantasy novel by Orson Scott Card
(1987, Tom Doherty Associates)

Born a Maker, unconsciously using witchcraft, a small boy is threatened by the world of water and religion, while his family struggles to keep him alive.


+ -- First reading (paperback)
July 30th to August 6th, 2022


I’ve heard so many good things about this series, yet I was underwhelmed by the first book, and am unsure if I will return for more. The description of magic in the days of early America, one with maps redrawn and politics much different, was subtle, as it competes with Christianity and science. I can’t say I really liked or disliked any of the characters in this book, but maybe because they all seem like setup for future stories. Thrower does his best to bring faith to this unsettled land, and is tempted by the devil, whom he thinks is God Himself, digressing from his interesting scientific observations. Miller is grumpy, but understandably so. Only Taleswapper encompasses a personality that lends itself to the honest person, yet he also rubbed me the wrong way at times when he took Alvin under his wing. For a book about the Seventh Son (especially after reading Sourcery about an eighth son), Alvin didn’t have much to do until the end. I feel like I’m rambling, and that’s because I don’t actually have much to say about the book, which is itself a sign that the book left me with little enough impression. I didn’t find the magic inspiring or sensational, or even a valuable part of the life that the villagers were living. It was barely there, though the people thought they were using it often enough.

Spoiler review:

Magic is about cycles, like the seventh son of a seventh son, or rivalries, like between earth, air, water and fire. Those superstitions are still with us, but most people take science over those, or so I hope. This book examines the rivalry between magic and religion, magic and science, instead of the prevailing religion vs science of our times. This is an alternate history where some people can use magic, and those who can’t think of it as nonsense.

There are flares and makers, and probably many more kinds of magic users. The flare Peggy, as a young girl, sees Alvin’s father and their family struggling to get across the river, and sends help. She can see their inner light. Before the eldest son dies after being carried off by the river, Alvin Jr is born, making him the seventh son in the family. The father, Alvin Sr was also a seventh son. Peggy uses her magic to see all possible futures of this newborn boy, and keeps him safe even though the world seems to want him dead.

We get several glimpses of how the elemental water wants to kill Alvin, from accumulation in the wood that drops the church’s ridgebeam on him (Peggy ensures it splits exactly where needed, so Alvin is safe) to the millstone that rolls over the damp ground on top of him (also splitting so he is spared). In every case, his father can find water involved where it shouldn’t have been.

Alvin’s mother is a churchgoing woman, but also believes in magic, and creates hexes for the house, and for Alvin, because they know he’s more accident prone than the other children, and that he was born to be special. The Preacher Thrower tries to like Alvin, but Alvin isn’t a docile child who will just believe scripture because it’s written down. He’s able to analyze everything.

Both Alvin and Thrower have visions, Alvin of a shining man who shows him that it’s wrong to use his gift for his own pleasure at the expense of others, and Thrower whose vision tells him to kill Alvin. Thrower thinks he’s seeing the Lord, but it’s more like the devil. Alvin learns of the unmaker, who is probably the one speaking to Thrower, and every time he encounters it, Alvin makes something to counter the negative energy, whether it’s grass baskets or fitting blocks together seamlessly. I don’t like the hand of God in this book, whether it’s the Shining man or the Visitor. All it does is swing either Alvin or Thrower in another direction, without reason. For a man of science, Thrower abandons reason for his own benefit all too easily.

My favorite parts of the book, as I think they were meant to be, were with Taleswapper. Trading stories for food and lodging, Taleswapper is invited into the Miller house, where ironically he was cast out of a Christian house and the church by Thrower. He stays a while, not only telling stories, but also helping around the house, getting it ready for winter. He encourages Alvin, and when Alvin is seriously injured by reassembling the millstone by himself (without Peggy, so it catches his leg), he has Alvin try to heal it himself, using his power. Adverse to using his power for himself after his vow, Alvin hesitates, but then agrees. He heals almost everything, but there is stll a magical part of the unmaker in his leg that he can’t get at. Thrower comes in, with the intent to kill him (instructions from his vision), and it’s funny to see how Taleswapper’s hex keeps Alvin safe by having Thrower forget the bone saw in so many ways.

The country is as much a character as the people, because it’s an alternate. Not knowing more than the basics of American history, a lot of this was lost on me. Suffice it to say that it looks like a much more politically balanced nation in its infancy, with Benjamin Franklin (also a maker) creating an American union out of a few states, the British keeping others, and the natives creating their own state. It allows for religion, politics and culture to exist side-by-side, though there are still many tensions. As in Pastwatch: The Redemption of Christopher Columbus, I wonder if this is the author’s alternative for redemption of the American colonization.

In a very abrupt ending that wants us to move to the next book, Alvin cures himself, and Taleswapper heads east, where he encounters Peggy, and tells her father that Alvin will be apprenticed to him in time. I think Thrower and Alvin’s brother-in-law Armor will become his enemies, and maybe even little Calvin, who is jealous of Alvin’s status. There are more stories to tell.

I can’t say I enjoyed this book. Whether it was the writing style, the material, or the characters, something felt off for me. It’s a very short novel, but it took a lot longer to read than it should have. The magic was subtle and subtely used, until Alvin is forced to heal himself. That should have been a nice change, but unfortunately it made it more dull. Maybe I wasn’t interested in the colonial American setting, or once again delving into a religious struggle like in the sequels to Ender’s Shadow. Or perhaps it’s just about having a showdown between the forces of light and darkness recreated, as is has been so many times, as visions trying to manipulate people against their personalities. Whatever it is, I’m not sure I’ll be returning to this series anytime soon.


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