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The Crystal City

Orson Scott Card

Tor / Tom Doherty Associates

US Hardcover First Edition

384 pages; $25.95

Publication Date: November 1, 2003

Date Reviewed: 22-12-04

Reviewed by: Stephanie Cage © 2004



Fantasy, General Fiction

'The Crystal City' is that rare beast: a deliciously easy read, which also stands up to closer inspection. This appealingly shiny volume is part six of the story of Alvin Maker, a blacksmith/traveller/psychic from an alternative version of American history where just about everyone has some form of paranormal ability. If you've read the previous stories in the series, this book will be exactly what you have come to expect. If you haven't, it's less baffling than you might imagine, since Orson Scott Card is kind enough to subtly slip in most of the relevant back-story along the way.

So we learn that Alvin has been sent to Nueva Barcelona by his wife, Margaret, but doesn't exactly know what he's supposed to be doing there. Since his wife is heavily pregnant with their first child after a previous miscarriage, it might seem strange that she sends him away. However, she is a 'torch' - with the power to see people's possible futures - and her powers have saved his life in the past, so he is prepared to take her word for it that Nueva Barcelona is the right place for him to be.

Much of the book concerns his gradual discovery of what he believes to be his mission there. It revolves around a lovely couple, Papa Moose and Mama Squirrel, who take care of many of the city's orphans. Not surprisingly, Alvin finds himself attempting to use his talents to help them out, while along the way he cures a woman of typhoid fever, struggles with his power-mad younger brother Calvin, teams up with charmingly comical would-be lawyer 'Honest Abe' Lincoln, and nearly gets eaten by an alligator.

One of the advantages of the fashion for the super-long fantasy series is that, since the world is already established in the earlier books, it allows plenty of space for developing characters, and as always Card does this with panache. Alvin himself is brilliantly portrayed as a good but tortured man, constantly battling against a formless enemy, the Unmaker, and never quite sure whether he's getting the better of it or not. His wife battles demons of her own as she is forced to conceal her real reason for sending Alvin away. Nevertheless, theirs is a strong relationship, and the final scene between them is one of the book's most touching moments.

For such a complicated story, 'The Crystal City' is deceptively simply written. The slightly pidgin feel of the narrative mirrors the strange blend of French, Spanish, American English (and probably a few other things as well) spoken by the characters, but allows for some wonderfully poetic writing, especially in those moments when Alvin's powers put him in touch with the natural world.

The running rhythm of 'the deer that still browsed in the stands of wood that had not yet made way for the cotton fields, the small herbs with healing and poison in them, the fish in the water' is both faintly magical and thoroughly appropriate to the moment. Not content with that, Card segues effortlessly on into a philosophical conclusion with 'the hum, hum, hum of sleeping people who, in the night time, became part of the world again instead of fighting against it the way most folks did the livelong day.'

Again and again, an apparently simple description like this, or a tiny incident barely noticed even by the characters involved, proves on closer inspection to have a greater significance either for the reader or for some future part of the story. For all its apparent lack of literariness, this is a thoughtful and well-crafted book which is worth a careful reading -- like its hero, it is a diamond in the rough, and thoroughly deserves its golden setting.