Werner's Reviews > The Crystal City

The Crystal City by Orson Scott Card
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May 29, 2010

really liked it
bookshelves: alternate-worlds, fantasy, books-i-own, got-from-bookmooch
Recommended for: Fans of alternate-world fantasy
Read from May 29 to June 22, 2010 , read count: 1

Throughout most of the preceding books of the series, Alvin's ultimate goal has been to understand how he's supposed to bring into being the "Crystal City" he saw in the vision he had as a child. Here, the pieces of that puzzle will fall into place, bringing the series to a satisfying ending point, though not a tidy HEA to wrap everything up with a neat bow --in this world (and in our real one! :-)), Card makes clear, life and its challenges are an ongoing story.

One of my Goodreads friends who reviewed this series, rather worn out by its 6-volume length, was pleased that this book seemed to be consciously shortened, as if the author were deliberately trying to bring the saga to an end with minimum delay. I had the same perception in places, but I didn't view it as a plus; I wasn't as bothered by the length of the series as a whole, because I thought the detailed world-building and the interrelationships of the characters added depth and texture to the story as a whole. Some of that was sacrificed here, I felt. For instance, the trip to Nueva Barcelona isn't described directly, even though it produced some incidents with real significance to the plot; these are referred to retrospectively, but I'd have preferred to have the book begin there. Card's Mexico --still Aztec-ruled; in this world, the Aztecs (called "Mexica" here) succeeded in overthrowing and driving out the Spaniards, and continue, in the 1820s, to practice large-scale human sacrifice-- is one of this series' most intriguing settings, but he doesn't develop it as much as he could have. And plotlines such as the relationship between Verily and Purity could have been profitably explored much more. That accounted for the rating of four stars here, rather than five.

Nevertheless, the book was still both enjoyable and profound. The plot took on an epic cast; Card's writing remains lyrical in places, and humorous in others (my wife not infrequently laughed out loud over it); and his moral and psychological insight doesn't falter. His characterizations continue to be marvelous: it's fun to see Arthur Stuart growing up, Calvin is as infuriating as ever, new fictional characters La Tia, Marie d'Espoir, and "Papa Moose" and "Mama Squirrel" are masterpieces, and a young Abe Lincoln heads the cast of real-life figures here. (Texan history buffs, and Alamo enthusiasts, may not like the portrayals of Stephen Austin and Jim Bowie.) And the message is ultimately a good one, and thoroughly relevant to real life --like Alvin and Measure, all of us are called to "love the Making," to spend our lives using what we've been given, what we are and what we have, to build up and create something good that makes the world better, instead of tearing down and destroying.

That message is certainly compatible with a theistic, religious view of the universe, but it's cast in essentially nonsectarian, secular terms. This could be said of the series as a whole. In this book, the rescue of the slaves and the downtrodden from Nueva Barcelona, their wilderness wanderings, and their crossing of the Mizzippy (Mississippi) parallels events in the history of ancient Israel (also escaped slaves). But though La Tia says "we the book of Exodus, us," Alvin doesn't claim any Divine mandate and doesn't bring any religious message. He believes in God, and characters give thanks to God at some points; but any participation by God in the narrative is veiled behind secondary causes, implicit rather than explicit, and without any direct revelation. Indeed, not all the characters are Christian; Tenska-Tawa and La Tia draw their spirituality from Native American and African, not biblical, roots. The name ultimately picked for the main building in Alvin's city is the Tabernacle; but it's not a place of worship or preaching, and he explicitly says it isn't intended as a church. It's made of crystal the surfaces of which will show visions; and two of the characters invest it with a religious significance ("instead of you go and a priest pretend to be God, we go inside and find out where he live in our heart! ...In the Bible, the tabernacle was a place where only the priest would go.... But our tabernacle, everybody's the priest, everybody can go inside, man and woman, to see what they see and hear what they hear"). But the contents of the visions described are of a practical, not theological, character; and even the quotations above (which Alvin himself doesn't make, or endorse), while they certainly express a kind of theological viewpoint, certainly don't express one that's recognizably Mormon --indeed, it sounds much more characteristic of Low-church Protestant evangelicalism than of hierarchical, clergy- dominated Mormonism. Also, the dates and biographical details of Alvin's life bear no similarities to Joseph Smith's (beyond sharing the last name Smith, and the location of the Crystal City in what would be, in our world, Illinois, where Nauvoo was built); the social and demographic makeup of Alvin's following is nothing like Joseph Smith's, and as noted in reviews of earlier books in the series, the social messages here have no similarity to those of 19th-century Mormonism; and there is a total absence in Alvin's teaching of any attempt to found a religious movement, or to proclaim any Mormon doctrines (readers will look in vain for any suggestion of plurality of gods, polygamy, long-buried ancient scriptures, etc.). As I've said before, I think that in this parallel world, Alvin Smith does replace Joseph Smith. But replacing him isn't at all the same as duplicating him; and I think the above facts establish that this series is not, per se, about Mormonism, nor is it veiled Mormon propaganda as such.
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Comments (showing 1-4 of 4) (4 new)

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message 1: by Jim (new)

Jim Now that there is an end, I may go back to this series. I quit years ago because of the length of time between novels.


Werner Yes, there's something to be said for reading a series after it's completed, so that you can actually read it from beginning to end if you want to!


Wildan I heard the seventh book of this series is forthcoming. It's going to be titled Master Alvin. Thank God for that. Too many loose ends to conclude this story.


Werner Thanks for the heads-up, Idan! I hadn't heard about that.


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