November 2003
© 2003 Ernest Lilley / SFRevu
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The Crystal City by Orson Scott Card
0312864833 PubDate: 11/10/03
Review by Bruce Wallace

384 pgs. List price $25.95
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The Crystal City is the sixth in a series of books entitled the Tales of Alvin the Maker. The title of the book says it all to any who signed on to the wild ride the author started some twenty years ago by penning the first novel in this series. In the first book young Alvin and his brother are kidnapped by an Indian at war with an alternate history version of the United States. Known only as the Prophet the Indian gives Alvin his vision of a crystal city, a city of Makers. Alvin himself is a Maker and the most powerful Maker born in a long time Alvin immediately embraces the vision and makes it his dream as well. He is however quite doubtful, after all if it is to be a city of Makers and he is the only one, well the vision, the dream seems problematic to say the least. Alvin attempts to fix this problem some years later by starting his own Makers school. He begins by training his brothers. Because after all if you are the seventh son of a seventh son, not only does that give you magical powers, well it gives you six other brothers! However, almost as soon as Alvin begins this work, he must leave it. His childhood enemy the Un-Maker is at work again. One could think of the Un-Maker as the as the opposite of a Maker. Whatever this entity is, it is bent on destroying Alvin and all of his makings. In short he is trying to Un-Make Alvin and he will stop at nothing to achieve this end. The presence of the Un-Maker creates balance in this remarkable chronicle. Alvin is the most powerful Maker born in sometime and the Un-Maker whether created for the express purpose for defeating Alvin or just an ancient evil lying in wait for the next up and comer, the Un-Maker reminds us that not everyone can save the world. After all, if it was easy every one would do it!  

 His brothers continue training as Makers because they love him and the work they have begun. His brother Calvin is the exception. A focal point in this and other Alvin Maker Tales, Calvin is an enormously powerful Maker.  While not nearly as powerful as Alvin, Calvin is still a force to be reckoned with and nearly shatters Alvinís dream of the Crystal city.

What is a Maker? Well, a Maker in the context of this tale is one who has a knack that allows him to be the best at a very select skill. Every one has a knack to a certain extent, but most of the time it is a trivial but useful. Alvinís knack is building and tearing down.  He can build and fix things almost to the atomic level and when he is done whatever or whoever he worked on will be better than when he began.

That said we join Alvin and his adopted brother, Arthur Stuart in the city of Nueva Barcelona, formerly known as New Orleans. Alvin has been sent there by his wife Peggy, a Torch or seer and a devout abolitionist to prevent the Pro-slavery and Anti-slavery factions from starting a war.  She has been trying to avoid this war ever since she realized that abolishing slavery in the Americas was her dream and purpose for living.  Because Peggy is a seer she knows that only Alvin can prevent the coming war, she also knows the cost that stopping it will incur. She realizes however that it is quite literally his job to save the world and her job to save him while he is doing it. The rub is that she would like him to save the world and come back to her, but because he is who he is and the world does need saving, she keeps sending him out knowing that each journey could be his last. 

Alvin does succeed in stopping the war. Peggy is glad and is looking forward to having him home again. One can only imagine her surprise when she has a vision of him leading 5000 slaves to freedom and the Promised Land. She can see all the possible outcomes of this noble but rash act which will certainly reignite the war she wanted to stop. In all but one outcome Alvin and the slaves he is trying free, perish as will Alvinís dream of building the Crystal city. Peggy races off to ensure this one outcome will indeed come to pass while Alvin leads the newly freed slaves to freedom or death. 

The Crystal City is the culmination of multiple tales, old scores finally settled and final resolution between friends, enemies both new and old. A central theme to all of the Alvin Maker tales is the realization by the characters who are determined to make a positive difference in their world is that the work is not easy and they must spend a lot of their time trying to find their exact purpose in life and how to achieve it, and being despondent when they canít. As always the examined life is no picnic.  

An important lesson from this last installment is that a dream such as the Crystal City often dos not withstand impact with reality, in this case it does. Not because Alvin was powerful but because he understood enough about the dream to understand that he could neither posses or complete it on his own. The magic of the story is in the details. As a special bonus we find out the exact purpose of the living golden plow Alvin has been carting around for most of the series! This has bothered me forever!  

In short, avid fans of Orson Scott Card should buy this last installment immediately and pen a thank-you note to the author, for not only ending our long wait but for doing it in a such a thoughtful manner.

© 2003 Ernest Lilley / SFRevu
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