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Battling the Natives Along the Mississippi : RED PROPHET : The Tales of Alvin Maker II by Orson Scott Card (Tor Books: $17.95 ; 320 pp . )

February 14, 1988|Sue Martin | Martin frequently reviews science fiction for The Times

Leaving behind the high-tech world of "Speaker for the Dead" and "Ender's Game," Orson Scott Card has turned to an alternate early America, where William Henry Harrison is an Indian-hating, power-hungry manipulator, Benjamin Franklin is considered a wizard, and folk magic--hexes, "beseechings" and wardings--works.

In this second volume of a projected six-book series, Alvin Miller (he has yet to be known as Alvin Maker) is a 10-year-old with a Destiny. While on his way to apprentice to a blacksmith, Alvin is pulled into the struggle between a triumvirate of men fighting for the soul of the fledgling America.

Little Alvin, the seventh son of a seventh son, has great power. Though a lot of people have "knacks," Alvin's ability to make, fix and heal things, to understand how things should be and how to get them that way, is much more powerful than the average dowser or torch (a person who can see somewhat into the future).

The men for whom Alvin is a focus are: (1) Ta-Kumsaw (Tecumseh, in our world), a "Shaw-Nee" who wants all the land east of the "Mizzipy River" for the Whites because their touch has killed it for the Indians, who will have the land to the west; (2) White Murderer Harrison, who wants all the Indians massacred; and (3) Lolla-Wossiky, also known as the Red Prophet Tenskwa-Tawa (and Ta-Kumsaw's brother) who is preaching to all Indian tribes about a land where White and Red peoples live in harmony with one another and the land.

It all comes back to the land: the music Indians hear as they make their way through the woods and call out to the animals, asking their permission to kill them. The Indians are in perfect harmony with nature. The whites--the English, Swedes, French, Dutch etc.--are in complete disharmony: tearing up the land with plows, cutting away forests, killing animals for fur and throwing away the carcasses.

Though Card writes passionately and colorfully within the pioneer American setting, this is yet another tale of Dark versus Light, the Force versus the Dark Side of the Force, the Elves and Men versus Sauron and his Orcs--except here it is the Maker and the Unmaker.

Alvin seems almost Christlike, but without the proselytizing. His hands heal and bring together these seemingly disparate elements into a force to be reckoned with. Alvin is likable, as are the other characters, and the setting is charming, but not a whole lot more. I wish the book had a bit more wit, and more of the unexpected. Making the setting, a magical early America, slightly askew from what we know of history, is not enough.

Land as sacred, as a repository of magic, was explored at great length in Stephen R. Donaldson's six-book series of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever. In Donaldson's series there was also an unmaking at hand and a destruction of the land.

And though Donaldson's style can be dense, Card's use of the vernacular is pretty near as annoying as an angry pit bull in a china shop, especially since not all the characters are spottily educated pioneer people, and not all the third-person narrative needs to be loaded with homey observations.

With the projected length of this series, one may be permitted to hope that the conclusion of this work, a mite down the pike at this stage, is not a foregone conclusion.

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