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Volume 17, Number 1, Spring, 1999

Time will tell which of the above authors' sagas will join the Grimm Brothers and Hans Christian Anderson's collections as enduring fables. Ursula Le Guin and Stephen King can't be counted out, but I'm placing my bets on Orson Scott Card's visionary Tales of Alvin Maker.

Orson Scott Card burst upon the science-fiction scene in the 1980s with two successive Hugo award winners of spectacular scope and uncommon wisdom: Ender's Game and Speaker for the Dead. Yet his late- 1980s fantasy trilogy (Seventh Son, Red Prophet, and Prentice Alvin), about a boy with a "knack," easily tops his first-rate science fiction.

Readers begged Card for years for more stories about Alvin Maker, a journeyman blacksmith in a colonial America where folk magic actually works and the American Revolution never happened. With Alvin Journeyman (1996) and the recently released Heartfire, Card's classic trilogy expands from one man's coming of age to the slow maturation of American civilization itself.

Card, who grew up in Utah, often undergirds his fiction (notably, his five Homecoming novels) with a subtle Mormon metaphysics. Both a humanism and a devout spirituality pervade the Alvin Maker tales, in which some people have the knack of seeing the "heartfire" with in souls, but others deny them.

Like its absorbing predecessors, Heartfire blends history and allegory, fictional and historical charactersincluding the naturalist Audubon, the French novelist Balzac, and statesman John Adams to dramatize poignantly all of the issues that have divided America, from slavery, racism, and rampant statism to the mistreatment of Indians and the persecution of witches. Heartfire, which can be enjoyed on its own but is best read in sequence, achieves a Biblical intensity with its Cain-and-Abel subplot of Alvin's envious younger brother, its voodoo-enhanced revolt of angry black slaves, and Alvin's ongoing vision of building a shining city out west.

By the fifth novel's hopeful conclusion, Card has set the stage for a new American revolution. Just as J.R.R. Tolkien's landmark trilogy The Lord of the Rings resonated with archetypal British myths, Card's wise and witty Tales resonate with the deepest American themes and highest American ideals of "liberty and justice for all."

Reviewed by Michael Grossberg

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