Books about special children with magic powers being manipulated by binary forces are kind of boring. There seems to be a glut of them.
As the 18th century draws its final, decade-long gasps, America looks a lot different than our history remembers. Dutch colonies and Aboriginal nations have become states. Washington was executed for betraying his British superiors; Benjamin Franklin was (though he denied it), a “wizard”. Faith and superstition have formed a tense equilibrium that could topple given just the right sort of pressure. The frontier remains wild, for now, but civilization continues its inexorable march west.
Alvin is the seventh son of a seventh son, his father also coincidentally named Alvin. He’s from a family of millers, and he is good at everything—however, he is also prone to accidents, because a malevolent force wants him dead. Unlike certain other boy prodigies, Alvin does not have a love-powered lightning bolt scar on his forehead. However, he does have a well-meaning but anonymous protector who is watching out for him, so that’s something.
I guess I was … underwhelmed by Seventh Son. The first few chapters were difficult, but once Taleswapper came in and Alvin grew up a little, the book fell into a rhythm that I enjoyed. Yet for all the interesting interactions between Taleswapper and the Miller family, between Reverend Thrower and the Visitor, between Alvin and his Shining Man, I never got the sense that the book was going anywhere. There’s conflict and a proper climax and falling action and everything that you need to make a story … but it’s a coming of age tale that never really comes of age, and that left me unsatisfied.
My apathy (or perhaps harshness) might be a result of the setting. Revolutionary America does not tickle my fancy the way Tudor England does, and while I cannot apologize for my preferences, it’s possible those who find this era fascinating will be more charitable towards alternate history about it. But I keep thinking about how Seventh Son stacks up against Ender’s Game, and while that is a battle the former could never possibly win, I think it’s useful to examine why I liked one Card book so much and disliked another (albeit not with proportional intensity).
Ender’s Game is a seductive, heartbreaking book. Card gives us a victory for humanity, but in so doing he breaks Ender in the way a child should never be broken. These are the two foci around which the ellipse of the story revolves: the moral impact of the book comes from that central question of whether Ender’s treatment (and, on the periphery, the treatment of all the children at Battle School) was justified by the threat to humanity. It’s an extremely deep yet also entertaining tale.
In contrast, Seventh Son is about a kid with magic powers who breaks his leg. It has a vast and unknowable enemy that is Satan rebranded as a force of pure, neutral destruction—the Unmaker to Alvin’s role as Maker. It sounds titanic and epic and should be awesome—and that’s just the problem. Alvin’s a boy. He doesn’t know what he’s doing. He can barely decide to use his power to heal himself, the result of an admirable but perhaps misguided attempt at creating some kind of personal code of ethics. Unlike Ender’s role in his story’s larger conflict, however, I don’t sense much ambiguity over Alvin’s destiny to oppose the Unmaker. As a larger-than-life force that, in some sense, is essentially impossible to defeat, the Unmaker is an ultimate Other.
Unknowable enemies are almost as bad as crazy enemies. It’s unfortunate that Reverend Thrower seems to be going that way, because he starts the book as a fairly interesting character. I enjoyed getting inside his head and seeing his rational mind attempt to reconcile superstition, religion, and science (hopefully he understands why Newton decided to go into alchemy). Yet as the book progresses and the Unmaker seems to get more and more desperate, Thrower degenerates into a Renfield-like character with little intelligence or ambition of his own.
For what it’s worth, Seventh Son is well-written, provided you can tolerate the dialect Card throws in for good measure. There were times when I could ignore my issues with the story and simply enjoy the experience of reading this book—and that is something to write home about. In the end, though, the road Card asks us to walk is a long one, and I’m not entirely sure the destination is worth it.