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Heartfire, Orson Scott Card, TOR, 1998, 301 pp.
Note: This is the fifth book in the Tales of Alvin Maker, following Seventh Son, Red Prophet, Prentice Alvin, and Alvin Journeyman.
Heartfire is an extremely genial read, a pleasant way to spend a few hours, here in the company of old friends. Rambly, not particularly charged with epic urgency, and character-based, the book has its own unique strengths and Card knows them and writes to them very deliberately. Whether such a novel would be worth full price for hardcover is thankfully not a question I had to answer; I was perfectly happy to borrow it from a friend. Thus, I have no complaints whatsoever about Heartfire -- I had the opportunity to enjoy it on its own terms, and Card kept me entertained while enlightening me. And throw in some insights about human nature and the tendency to witch trials (literal witch trials here, but the implications remain for our day, just as with something like Miller's The Crucible), and sure enough, Card has added another wonderful book to his credit. One caution up front: if you have not read the previous four books, do so immediately before reading this book. Heartfire deserves the extended lead-in, and the first four books are worthy of attention in their own right.
Two main storylines weave together in Heartfire. Alvin and a group of his friends encounter a woman named Purity in Massachusetts, and Purity, after hearing Alvin's life story, decides to accuse him of being a witch. A witch trial and much psychological insight ensues. Alvin's wife, Margaret, is much further south, in the city of Camelot, doing what she can to find the way to unravel the practice of slave-holding. Alvin's brother Calvin is also in Camelot, and Margaret ends up dealing with him and the troubles he raises. Each of these two storylines seems to proceed at a relaxed pace, despite being filled with incident. This is mostly due to the lull in the overarching story of Alvin's life. He has learned the most urgent lessons he needs to hold the Unmaker at bay (for now), he has married his true love, and now his task of building the Crystal City is at somewhat of an impasse -- he doesn't know what to do next. In one sense, Heartfire is a typical fantasy novel, in that the hero of good is accumulating a group of companions to help on the epic quest. But apart from that coincidental parallel, little is stereotypical about Card's writing and intentions.
Alvin Maker is an odd character -- his only flaw is that he is too good. For example, we find out on page 54 that Alvin quit reading Gargantua and Pantagruel because he was offended by a scene of childbirth, which indicates that he didn't get past the third chapter (and if Alvin couldn't deal with that, he's lucky he didn't read further). That is a telling reaction. Most of the action of Heartfire takes place because of his refusal to look away from evil (the witch trials) or react negatively to dangers to his life (often represented by Calvin). Is Alvin boring? No, Card gives Alvin a sense of humour and a down to earth attitude, and then surrounds him with colourful characters. I like Arthur Stuart -- he has always been a believable person, and Card has given him some interesting ways to grow. I also appreciated the interaction between Verily and John Adams -- the way that the two of them manage to wrap up the witch trial is given credence by their intelligence and compassion. Purity is a bit of a cipher, despite her extensive backstory. Calvin hangs out with a certain French writer named Honoré de Balzac, who seems to be a favourite of Card's -- he gets a rather rosy depiction. But the feelings between Alvin and Calvin form the basic bedrock of the book. Will Calvin finally redeem himself? Alvin's action at the end in this regard was a bit of a surprise -- relief that maybe he is a little bit like the rest of us, but perhaps also a set-up for a confrontation in the future. Card has a somewhat fantastical explanation for the slaves' actions in Camelot, that stands as a neat metaphor for what slavery does to a person but also seems to take away from the individual pain. It's definitely a clever framework for the story he tells.
As a kind of alternate history, the Tales of Alvin Maker are quite adept. The political map is radically different than the United States of the nineteenth century, but Card zeroes in on some of the biggest issues of American history. Here he examines the rigidity of thought that can attend religion and the horrors of slavery. Earlier books in the series looked at other skeletons in the closet, like attitudes towards Natives (in Red Prophet for example). Why did witch trials last so long? Will there be a Civil War in the same way as happened in our history? These kinds of questions miss Card's intention -- to focus a lens (in this case, altered history) on certain aspects of the human condition. That's what makes Heartfire immediately recognizable as one Card's best, the skill of his use of literary tools for a profound purpose. I'm cheering for Alvin on his way to the Crystal City and keen to discover what's next, but I'm also happy to dally along the way.
Last modified: October 7, 1998
Copyright © 1998 by James Schellenberg (email@example.com)
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