The Prodigal Son

“Everything possible to be believed is an image of the truth.”

Being something of an aficionado in the genre of fantasy, I’ve come across many authors with their claims to fame. Most are fairly predictable in terms of plot and character, whilst some do surprise you from time to time. A few are very good, weaving magic into their words and painting pictures so colourful the eye can all but see it. It’s only a handful, however, who are truly great. Written by Orson Scott Card, it is a masterpiece, in “The Tales Of Alvin Maker” series. In particular, the first in the series: Seventh Son. It’s difficult to say something about it that hasn’t already been said before. One of the most popular books in the field, it has been reviewed and critiqued up the bestseller lists, down them and then right back up again. Set in an alternate America of the 19th century, the book explores the beginnings of Alvin Maker. The story commences with a small child, Peggy, who possesses the power to “se” over long distances, and make out the life forces of other living creatures. It is she who alerts her family to the perils faced by some travellers, a few miles away. An unexpected flood during a simple crossing of the Hatrack River sees the heavily pregnant mother-to-be of the Miller family in dire circumstances. In order to keep his mother and his as-yet unborn sibling safe, the eldest of the six children, Vigour, sacrifices himself and is swept away by the water and dashed on the rocks that lie ahead. Despite his broken body, he valiantly struggles to survive until the child is born, and passes away just as his new brother takes his first breath. It is so that Alvin Junior enters the world.

His father, Alvin Senior, was the seventh son of his own family. Thus, Alvin Junior is born the seventh son of a seventh son, in a land where earth magiks and “knacks” are commonplace, if ridiculed and condemned by conventional religious society. The second generation seventh son is said to possess wondrous powers, and it is considered a legendary birth among people. Such a birthing might even see the child become a Maker, of which there has only been one so far in history. He, they say, could walk on water and heal the sick.
The story traces the first ten years of Alvin’s life, and the development of the powers that he possesses. These include the ability to change things at the molecular level as well as perform healing on the infirm. He also encounters the poet William Blake, otherwise known as Taleswapper, who becomes a guiding influence as well as a friend and confidante. The development of the relationship between the two of them is beautifully portrayed, with the older man treating the boy with a respect and subdued reverence, and the boy accepting it as the most natural thing in the world. It is with his help that Alvin learns of the attempts on his life by the entity described as the Unmaker, and we discover the that the Unmaker was responsible for the flood in the beginning of the story that ultimately claimed Vigour’s life. It is usually associated with water, as is chronicled during the near-fatal accidents that Alvin is subject to. However, there is some mysterious force that protects him, time and again. It is later established that it was Peggy who had been using her powers to keep the Unmaker at bay. Meanwhile, Alvin Senior also confronts his inbred resentment against his seventh son, whom he subconsciously blames him for the death of his firstborn. The story ends with Alvin being apprenticed to the blacksmith in the small holding near the Hatrack River where he was conceived.

The beauty of this work is not the story. Or rather, not just the story, which is poignant and sharp, with a nostalgic, sepia-tinted feel to it. No, it’s the backdrop of a fledgling America with its rustic, gritty quaintness that makes it inimitable. There is a point in the story when young Alvin uses his powers to destroy a colony of ants, and revels in the senseless brutality that he is capable of inflicting with such minimal effort. But he soon realises the error of his ways, and vows never to use his powers again in a way that will harm other living creatures. Card describes the situation in a way that we’re all, for a moment, the little boy with a magnifying glass who torments the ant just to see it writhe. The crippling attack on Alvin’s conscience by a mysterious stranger who helps him see the error of his ways is delicately written, and the ensuing flood of tears, borne of an overwhelming guilt, is portrayed with sensitivity and gravity. It’s almost as if to reaffirm in our hearts that the ups and downs of a ten year old boy must be regarded as solemnly as those, perhaps, of an adult. I use the word ‘power’ frequently, but there is no such definitive phrase utilised in the book itself. This is one of those rare works wherein a wealth of meaning is conveyed merely through allegory and nuance, where conversations between protagonists are instrumental in the realisation of the individual of a deep-seated nostalgia within them. Card’s greatest triumph is his ability to draw out each emotion in a way that makes it so tangible, you can actually feel it. This ability serves him well as he endeavours to draw each character with a new brush each time.

Orson Scott Card is a true saga master, and ‘Seventh Son’ a true embodiment of culture and imagination. A masterpiece, indeed.

Shrey Byala

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