Alvin is the seventh son of a seventh son, born when his six older brothers are still alive. In the alternate America Orson Scott Card has imagined, this makes Alvin a person of special magic power, perhaps even a “maker.”
In this America are many people with knacks, or particular magic powers, who were expelled from England as the result of an ultimately successful Puritan revolution. America is different in other ways too, containing several separate nations, for example.
A maker is able to understand and consciously oppose the force of unmaking that continuously breaks down the universe. In this opposition between making and unmaking, one sees echoes of William Blake, who appears as a character. Readers familiar with Ursula K. Le Guin’s EARTHSEA trilogy will also recognize similarities to the Taoist magic that is at the center of her fantasy.
In structure, Card’s book is much like the opening of EARTHSEA, but in every important way, it is unique. No one in Alvin’s world understands the rules and uses of magic as do the wizards of Earthsea. Magic is actively opposed by organized Christianity as the devil’s power. Magical powers are psychologically disturbing to those who have them and lead to social, familial, and internal conflict.
Card’s novel is gripping in part because he portrays these conflicts so vividly. The story is lovingly crafted, the familiar yet strange world realized in eye-catching detail, and the characters revealed in ways that draw the reader to them, even to those who do evil. This is a book to be read aloud in the family.