Book Review: Seventh Son and Red Prophet

Card, Orson Scott. Seventh Son and Red Prophet: Tales of Alvin Maker Books 1 and 2. (Tor, 1987, 1988) Paperback.

Seventh Son and Red Prophet are the first two books in a five book (possibly six book) series of alternate history novels set in the early 1800s, centering on the seventh son of a seventh son, Alvin. He is a maker, someone with the ability to shape things. He also becomes a healer of sorts. These novels tell about his world, his first eleven years of life, and the tensions between whites and Indians in Card’s alternate world.

It had been a very long time – decades – since I last picked up fiction by OSC, and I saw this two-in-one edition at a used book store. I’d read a little about the series, and decided, ‘Why not?”

The story begins with a girl who has the gift of being a “torch” someone who can see the heartfire in people and animals, and who knows their secrets as well as their possible futures. She is not happy about this, and is too wise too young. A family tries to cross a river near her town and the waters rise up, almost killing all thirteen of the children, as well as the parents. Townsfolk rescue all but the oldest boy, who is carried off by the river. But he does not die, not until after his brother to be arrives, making Alvin the seventh son of a seventh son with all children still living. Alvin will be something special, and because of that, the forces of darkness will do their utmost to destroy him. This the girl knows.

Alvin can sense that he is special, and he uses his powers to cause mischief. Afterwards, he has a vision that chides him for what he has done, and he promises only to use his gifts for the good. This is very important, and comes back in the second book. The Unmaker also appears and corrupts a minister, using him as a tool to try to stunt Alvin if he can, or worse.

The first book shows Card’s alternate America and how it differs from what we know, as well as introducing Alvin and the other major characters. The second book has more physical action and involves the Indians and Napoleon, among others. The Red Prophet of the title is Tensketawa, brother of Tecumseh, and Alvin will play a major role in events leading up to the Battle of Tippecanoe. This is the volume where the story gets seriously strange, and very mystical. Card does an excellent job with the story but the fantasy elements dominate the latter half of the book far more than they appeared in the first volume and set out the overall plot-arc for the rest of the series.

Besides the Unmaker, a supernatural figure, there are also corrupt mortals, ambitious mortals, and people blinded by love and fury. The story moves quickly. Fantasy elements and alternate history carry the last third of the novel, driving events and further pushing Card’s world away from ours.

Having a little familiarity with the actual history of the early Republic period (1800-1848) helps a great deal. You know the general pattern and some of the characters, although Card plays very fast and loose with some historical individuals, as you can imagine.

I enjoyed the books and read them back-to-back, non stop. Hey, that’s what trans-oceanic flights are for, right?

Some critics of the series overall say that Card includes too much of the “folklore” and beliefs of the Latter Day Saints, especially in the later books. I could see a little of that in these volumes, but only if I looked hard and thought about how Card was working things. Yes, there are some ideas I generally associate with what I understand about the LDS teachings concerning the pre-Columbian Americas, but you have to go looking for them*. These are not going to convert anyone to join the LDS, and if you are hunting for LDS theology, you will find as much as you will Calvinist theology (the importance of a worldly vocation as part of religious faith, the duty of being a peacemaker if possible).

Interestingly, I’d started Kevin J. Anderson and Sarah A. Hoyt’s new alt-history of the US as well. Card’s style is softer, for lack of a better word, and the books are fuzzy on the edges in places. I’m not certain how else to describe it. There is a deliberate archaism in Card’s language that helps put you into the story world and that doesn’t intrude overmuch.

If you want an intriguing blend of folk-lore, fantasy, alt-history, and coming-of-age, I recommend these books. I’ve started the third in the series, but I don’t know how much farther I’ll go beyond that one.

*It has been at least a decade since I read The Book of Mormon and I could be mis-remembering things.

FTC Notice: I bought these books with my own funds for my own use and received no remuneration from the author or publisher for my review.


3 thoughts on “Book Review: Seventh Son and Red Prophet

  1. “at a used book store”

    Mind sharing the location, either here or via email? All the ones down here have closed, and I’ve picked the few places that have a used book section clean.

  2. I recall, with pleasure, reading those stories.
    I recall, with less pleasure, how long ago that was. For the first set–through Journeyman Alvin, much closer to thirty years ago than twenty.

    I guess he finished the series, but I haven’t wanted to step on the nostalgia and read an ending unlikely to measure up to the embellishments of memory.

    If you run across OSC’s collection of short stories titled “Cruel Miracles”, make sure to grab it. Some of the stories haunted me for years.

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