THE CRYSTAL CITY
by Orson Scott Card
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
The Crystal City is the sixth novel of Orson Scott Card’s long-running Alvin Maker series. In this novel, Alvin becomes a Moses figure, freeing a large group of slaves from Neuva Barcelona (New Orleans) on his journey to create the Crystal City he was shown in his dreams so long ago. Card has long since expanded the focus of his story from Alvin himself, and he delves into the growth of Alvin’s brother-in-law, Arthur Stuart, travels with Calvin Smith on an expedition against the Mexica, and shows Verity Cooper’s attempt to expunge the theft charges against Alvin dating back to his apprenticeship.
Although keeping the multiple story lines going, Card focuses the most attention on Alvin’s own adventures, even when he is not an active character in the book. This serves to heighten the reality of Alvin’s story because it means that when Card is focusing on Alvin, the reader is aware that there are other stories being played out elsewhere which may (or may not) have the same import, but which are just as real as Alvin’s adventures.
As with the earlier novels, Alvin makes broad use of his knack of makery, even as he learns to do new tricks with it. This time, however, Alvin is not the only maker, or even person with a powerful knack. Arthur Stuart is coming along as a maker, Card introduces new characters such as La Tia, and characters like Calvin and Tenskwa-Tawa are re-introduced to help or hinder Alvin in his plans.
With the various stunts Alvin pulls in The Crystal City involving water, specifically those in relation to moving the slaves and poor from Neuva Barcelona up to Noisy River, it is interesting, and somewhat problematic, that Card portrays this as a society with such a strong Christian conviction. Even as Alvin denies any parallel between himself and Moses during the exodus, his damming of the Mizzippy evokes the parallel of Moses with the Red Sea, even to the characters in the book, and his bridge over Pontchartrain is a reconstruction of Jesus and Peter walking on the Sea of Galilee.
While the title of the book seems to indicate that the book will focus on Alvin’s creation of the Crystal City, the majority of the novel focuses on the exodus with Alvin never quite feeling he is doing the work he is supposed to be doing. Of course, this raises the issue of predestination, which Card deals with throughout the series in an interesting way, helped along by characters like Peggy Larner, Alvin’s wife. As a torch, Peggy can see the future, or the possible future, but she is also able to perform actions, or help other people perform actions, which changes the future that she can see. While this would appear to negate the idea of a preordained universe, Card provides the feel that Alvin has a very definite destiny which will occur. Card doesn’t quite resolve this apparent contradiction, although the sense that Alvin’s destiny can be thwarted does always exist.
While some of the earlier novels seem to have lost their focus, which will only be able to be determined for sure when Card finishes the series, The Crystal City, for all that it appears to be a sideline for most of the novel, also feels as if it captures the right mood and events for the series. Five years after the release of Heartfire, Card has managed to pick up the saga of Alvin Maker and continue it towards its conclusion. With luck, he’ll find the time to focus on Alvin’s story and let his readers know what is ultimately in store for the cast of characters before too many more years have passed.
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