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Book News

Author establishes a sense of warmth in his reader

by Orson Scott Card

Tor Books, $24.95

Review by Bob Winstead

Web posted on: Wednesday, November 11, 1998 1:48:56 PM EST

(CNN) -- Everyone has a knack, something they do well. Some people can sing, others dance, some are good with their hands. Alvin Maker has a knack. And it just might get him hanged.

The fifth in the series of "The Tales of Alvin Maker", "Heartfire" is a novel of conscience. Orson Scott Card has woven his series around an alternate American history, one in which folktales come alive.

The story revolves around Alvin Smith, the taken name of Alvin Maker, a seventh son of a seventh son. He has traveled to New England to search for the person who can show him the location of where he is to build a Crystal City, which he has seen as a vision in an earlier book. Alvin has an entourage of followers with him.

New England is a big risk for him. He has a knack, a sort of natural psychic ability in which he can see the "heartfires" of others, make objects bend to his whim, and heal people.

This New England of "Heartfire" has some very stringent witchcraft laws. In comes a young lady named Purity, who herself has a knack -- she can sense what a person feels, and can tell what they are about to do. She also has a past. When she was just a few weeks old, her parents were hung in New England as witches.

When she meets Alvin and his entourage, they are quick to discover her ability. She becomes confused, then angry. Distraught at having recently found out her parent's fate -- and then meeting people with an unapologetic knack -- she accuses them with witchcraft.

"Until I met you, until I heard your story, I was sure my parents could not really have been witches and therefore a great injustice was committed. I didn't really believe that witches existed. But I have seen now that they do. You have powers far greater than God meant anyone but a prophet or apostle to have, Mr. Smith, and you have no qualms about using them. You are going about gathering disciples and planning to build a city. You are Nimrod, the mighty hunter against the Lord, and the city you mean to build is Babel. You want it to lift mankind above the flood and take men into heaven, where they will be as God, knowing all things. You are a servant of the devil, your powers are witchery, your plans are anathema, your beliefs are heresy, and if my parents were one-tenth as wicked as you, they deserved to die!"

When she leaves, Alvin sees to it that his friends are out of danger, then allows himself to be returned to Cambridge to answer the charges against him.

...Alvin held his hands forward, offering to be to be bound. Peaseman was not to be tricked, however, and tied Alvin's hands behind his back.

"That's not a good rope," said Alvin.

"It's a good one I bet," said Peaseman.

"No, it won't hold a knot," said Alvin. "Look." He shook his hands lightly and the knot slipped off the rope.

Peaseman looked dumbly at the rope, which now dangled limp from his hand. "That was a good knot."

"A good knot on a bad rope is no better than a bad knot," said Alvin. "I think it was old Ben Franklin what said that first. In Poor Richard" ...

..."Hold still," said Peaseman. He tied the knot again, tighter, and then redoubled it.

"I'll try to hold my hands still so it don't slip off," said Alvin.

Alvin is a kind soul and harbors no resentment toward his accuser. In fact, he's protecting her. Alvin's wife Margaret, is a torch who sees intent in people's heartfire, and can also foresee probable futures. She has foreseen that without Alvin's help, Purity will surely be hanged as a witch.

Margaret sees all this at a distance, however, as she has gone to Camelot (Charleston), the residence of the British King in exile, to argue before the king to abolish slavery. Since she can read the heartfires in people, no one can lie to her, but strangely, she finds she is unable to read the heartfires of the slaves in Camelot.

Did they know she was a torch, and so hid deliberately? That was hardly likely -- they could not all have such a sense of her hidden powers. No, their secret dreams were hidden from her because they were also hidden from the slaves themselves. It was how they survived. If they did not know their own rage, then they could not inadvertently show it. Slave parents must teach this to their children, to hide their rage so deeply that they couldn't even find it themselves.

And yet it was there. It was there, burning. Does it turn their hearts to ash, gradually growing cold? Or to lava, waiting to erupt?

Even though Card weaves his tale around the confines of witchery and slavery, it is how the characters deal with this adversity that makes "Heartfire" a compelling read. The enemy here lies in the attitudes of the society; apathy, inertia, superstition, and within this Card is free to explore fear, hatred, envy, ego, and misunderstanding. One evil however, surfaces in the guise of a man-the witcher Micah Quill. He can twist the meaning of the most innocent of statements into an admission of being in league with the devil.

"All I ever thought was to report what they said of themselves, that Alvin Smith is the seventh son of a seventh son, with all the knacks that such men are prone to have."

"So you believe the words of the devil concerning this?" asked Quill.

"The words of the devil?"

"The devil who spoke to you and told you that knacks just happen to come to seventh sons of seventh sons, when in fact witchcraft can only be practiced by those who have given themselves over to the service of Satan."

"I didn't understand that," said Purity. "I thought it was the use of hidden powers that was the crime, all by itself."

"Evil is never all by itself. So when you testify, you will speak truly, won't you, and name things as they truly were? Or do you intend to lie to protect your witch friends?"

"My witch friends??"

The arrests soon multiply. Starting at Cambridge College.

"The witcher Micah Quill, he sent us to fetch you for examination, if you be Ralph Waldo Emerson."

"I'm happy to go with you and help you dispel any misconception that might have arisen."

"Oh, it's no misconception," said the tithingman."Everyone knows you're a witchist. It's just a matter of whether you do so as a fool or as a follower of Satan."

"How can everyone know that I'm a thing which I never heard of until this moment?"

"That's proof of it right there," said the tithingman. "Witchists are always claiming there's no such thing as witchism."

Waldo faced his students, who had either turned in their seats to face him, or were standing beside their chairs. "This is todays's puzzle," he said. "If the act of denial can be taken as proof of the crime, how can an innocent man defend himself?"

There are high stakes involved. But this is not a novel of darkness, it is one of conscience. Card courageously dances among the topics of religion, truth, friendship, devotion, honor, love, and natural ability-with all the grace and confidence of a big horn sheep on a high rugged mountainside. Never does despair come to Alvin. His trust in his friends and family, his belief in his own ability, his faith that everything will work out for the best, gives hope to all who deal with him ... and add surprises to the story where you least expect them. This is a delightful book, full of fantasy, magic, mystery, drama, intellectual debate, and backwoods humor.

It's best if you have read the earlier installments in this series, not just for the history to understand what they are talking about and character development, but because these stories are treats in themselves. But if you haven't read them, it doesn't take you long to catch on in "Heartfire". The real "knack" in "The Tales of Alvin Maker", is how Card the writer is able to instill in his reader, the sense of warmth of their own heartfire within.

Bob Winstead edits and produces work for CNN News Features. He is also a musician and magician.

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