John's Reviews > The Crystal City

The Crystal City by Orson Scott Card
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's review
Sep 08, 2010

it was ok
bookshelves: fantasy
Read in July, 2010

The Alvin Maker series is a marvelously clever, folk-magical alternate history of North America, in which the author creates a fit forum for the brilliant, preachy, clever, and morally neurotic characters that seem to be his specialty. I think his take on famous historical characters is often marvelous, as is his frequent twisting and borrowing of details from his Mormon tradition.

Despite this general admiration, I must say that this is clearly the weakest of the series and not just because as a sequel it is a typically less passionate, less clever, less well crafted product than its predecessors. I think there are at least a couple of other flaws which earn this a 2-3 star rating compared to its 4 and 5 star siblings.

First I think the book showed Card’s interest in the series flagging. He left huge gaps in his story, with major characters dropped and significant dramas unresolved. This makes the disappointed reader feel like he missed a volume somehow.

The second greatest problem with this book is common to much of Card’s fiction. The characters take turns being the witty banterer, the clever rebutter, and the self-doubter. And when it is their turn on stage, they all tend to sound like the same person. I am generally amused by Card’s clever sitcom-like dialogue, full of insults, and one liners. And most of the time I buy into his rustic dialogue (even though I think much of the crudity is gratuitous). But all too frequently the sympathetic characters lapse into the same voice.

Similarly, Card’s characters tend to take turns wallowing in the same angst. I think that in small doses this kind of neurotic inner dialogue is OK, but when it goes on and on, and each character beats the same drum beat of his designated obsession, it gets trite and a bit boring. In this book Calvin is the best example. He is a bore. His well worn routine of accusation, and self-justification is not merely petty. Petty is believable. But Calvin is one dimensional. Instead of a cardboard demon, he has become a cardboard petty-miester. That may be a step up from most cliched villains, but it is a small step - in this book at least.

I have read so many of Card’s novels that I fear I have come to take many of his gifts for granted. For instance, one of this author’s strengths is his ability to weave morality into his plots and his characters. Card’s characters tend to be preoccupied with right and wrong, and are often obsessively resistant to conscience. Crystal City is no exception. The heroes are trying to do right, and see aright, and the villains are full of self-justification and pettiness. But in this case I think characters both good and bad are much more shallow than we should expect of such a fine author.

Because there is clearly an audience committed to re-entering the world of Alvin Maker, the author and publisher have less incentive to put out a quality product. And sadly, though this story may have made for a quick write, and a fast buck, it contributed little to the novelty, passion or characterization of the series. Alas, such is the economy of the sequel.
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