As the SF world collectively held its breath for the third Ender novel, Orson Scott Card switched gears and delivered the first volume of an alternate history/fantasy saga that would grow to be as nearly revered as Ender's. Seventh Son has some of the most heartfelt and emotionally genuine writing of Card's whole career. The first tale of Alvin Maker is both gentle and comforting, like a parent's embrace, and foreboding. It's a story of destiny set in a nation that, like the book's protagonist, is in its childhood, born in strife, with all of its hard lessons and growing pains yet to come.
Superficially, one notes an immediate resemblance to Ender's Game. With that novel, and other stories like his stunning novelette "Unaccompanied Sonata," Card's favorite thematic obsessions at this time tended to involve the loss of innocence in the face of the world's cruelty. Seventh Son is about another gifted child, Alvin Miller, born under hardship to a pioneer family in an alternate America at the onset of the 19th century. As per the title, Alvin Junior is the seventh son of a seventh son, born with unusual powers in a world where natural magics are common, if held in mistrust and outright fear by the conventionally religious.
The novel's first five chapters comprise the Hugo-and-Nebula-nominated novella "Hatrack River," establishing Alvin's birth as a individual destined for both greatness and adversity. The story is one of fantasy's most overt religious allegories, yet it's not an exercise in proselytizing. And many readers might be surprised at how a religious conservative like Card could portray such characters as the passionate minister Reverend Thrower as a pitiful, dogmatic, and easily terrorized fanatic. But look closely, and you'll see that even Reverend Thrower is no shallow stereotype. In his way, he's as deeply sympathetic a character as anyone else in the story, a man who sincerely believes what he believes and, as misguided as he is, only wants the best for his community and cannot see how the very dogma to which he's subscribed can only have the opposite effect.
While the story avoids stereotypes, though, it positively basks in archetypes. But this choice is established clearly by Card from its opening. We know what we're getting, and that we aren't being patronized. The narrative intent here is to explore archetypes, and why they are important in building the myths that define cultures. Alvin learns he is a Maker, able to shape items at the molecular level, including performing healings. A childish prank leads to a hard lesson in using his powers in the service of others and not petty personal gain. He also learns that there is a force attempting to destroy him — associated with water; Alvin's oldest brother was drowned on the day of Alvin's birth while protecting their mother — and one attempting to protect him.
Midway through the story, Alvin is met by the poet William Blake, who appears here as the nomadic Taleswapper. Taleswapper becomes part mentor and part apostle to Alvin. He is the one who will chronicle Alvin's story for the ages, the storyteller — like Homer and the authors of the Gospels — whose task it is to put into words the lives of mythic figures who in turn serve as examples to later generations. Through Taleswapper's influence, Alvin learns of the efforts of the Unmaker to destroy him, and that he has a great if yet undetermined destiny to fulfill in bettering his world. Alvin's father learns to confront his anger and resentment towards the boy, whom he still holds somewhat responsible for his oldest son's death. But there is little understanding from the pathetic Reverend Thrower, whose efforts to cleanse the boy of "evil" are, unbeknownst to him, fully manipulated by the Unmaker.
All of this mythmaking is brought to vivid life when set against the backdrop of early America, even if it is an alternate one. There's a texture to the setting that makes the struggles and hopes of all of Card's characters real — at times, heart-wrenchingly so. In the end, for all its trading in the symbology of religious experience and Campbellian myth, Seventh Son is a humanistic story, revealing a deep love for humanity and its indomitable drive to overcome even the hardest struggles and persevere. Alvin's birth at the story's opening is like that of this or any country, a defiant affirmation of survival against nature. No person or nation is born without a little blood being shed. And if, in reality, we don't actually have any Alvin Makers out there to make our road easier, wishing that there might be one can give us a strength in ourselves we didn't know we had.