Ben Babcock's Reviews > Seventh Son

Seventh Son by Orson Scott Card
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Sep 12, 2009

it was ok
bookshelves: own, hugo-nominee, 2012-read, alternate-history, fantasy, not-my-cup-of-tea
Read from January 20 to 21, 2012

Books about special children with magic powers being manipulated by binary forces are kind of boring. There seems to be a glut of them.

As the 18th century draws its final, decade-long gasps, America looks a lot different than our history remembers. Dutch colonies and Aboriginal nations have become states. Washington was executed for betraying his British superiors; Benjamin Franklin was (though he denied it), a “wizard”. Faith and superstition have formed a tense equilibrium that could topple given just the right sort of pressure. The frontier remains wild, for now, but civilization continues its inexorable march west.

Alvin is the seventh son of a seventh son, his father also coincidentally named Alvin. He’s from a family of millers, and he is good at everything—however, he is also prone to accidents, because a malevolent force wants him dead. Unlike certain other boy prodigies, Alvin does not have a love-powered lightning bolt scar on his forehead. However, he does have a well-meaning but anonymous protector who is watching out for him, so that’s something.

I guess I was … underwhelmed by Seventh Son. The first few chapters were difficult, but once Taleswapper came in and Alvin grew up a little, the book fell into a rhythm that I enjoyed. Yet for all the interesting interactions between Taleswapper and the Miller family, between Reverend Thrower and the Visitor, between Alvin and his Shining Man, I never got the sense that the book was going anywhere. There’s conflict and a proper climax and falling action and everything that you need to make a story … but it’s a coming of age tale that never really comes of age, and that left me unsatisfied.

My apathy (or perhaps harshness) might be a result of the setting. Revolutionary America does not tickle my fancy the way Tudor England does, and while I cannot apologize for my preferences, it’s possible those who find this era fascinating will be more charitable towards alternate history about it. But I keep thinking about how Seventh Son stacks up against Ender’s Game, and while that is a battle the former could never possibly win, I think it’s useful to examine why I liked one Card book so much and disliked another (albeit not with proportional intensity).

Ender’s Game is a seductive, heartbreaking book. Card gives us a victory for humanity, but in so doing he breaks Ender in the way a child should never be broken. These are the two foci around which the ellipse of the story revolves: the moral impact of the book comes from that central question of whether Ender’s treatment (and, on the periphery, the treatment of all the children at Battle School) was justified by the threat to humanity. It’s an extremely deep yet also entertaining tale.

In contrast, Seventh Son is about a kid with magic powers who breaks his leg. It has a vast and unknowable enemy that is Satan rebranded as a force of pure, neutral destruction—the Unmaker to Alvin’s role as Maker. It sounds titanic and epic and should be awesome—and that’s just the problem. Alvin’s a boy. He doesn’t know what he’s doing. He can barely decide to use his power to heal himself, the result of an admirable but perhaps misguided attempt at creating some kind of personal code of ethics. Unlike Ender’s role in his story’s larger conflict, however, I don’t sense much ambiguity over Alvin’s destiny to oppose the Unmaker. As a larger-than-life force that, in some sense, is essentially impossible to defeat, the Unmaker is an ultimate Other.

Unknowable enemies are almost as bad as crazy enemies. It’s unfortunate that Reverend Thrower seems to be going that way, because he starts the book as a fairly interesting character. I enjoyed getting inside his head and seeing his rational mind attempt to reconcile superstition, religion, and science (hopefully he understands why Newton decided to go into alchemy). Yet as the book progresses and the Unmaker seems to get more and more desperate, Thrower degenerates into a Renfield-like character with little intelligence or ambition of his own.

For what it’s worth, Seventh Son is well-written, provided you can tolerate the dialect Card throws in for good measure. There were times when I could ignore my issues with the story and simply enjoy the experience of reading this book—and that is something to write home about. In the end, though, the road Card asks us to walk is a long one, and I’m not entirely sure the destination is worth it.

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Reading Progress

01/22/2012 page 241
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11/26/2016 marked as: read

Comments (showing 1-6 of 6) (6 new)

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message 1: by Dan (new)

Dan Schwent A two? That's disheartening. I'll cross this one off my list.


message 2: by Ben (new) - rated it 2 stars

Ben Babcock Oh my. I’m not sure whether I’m flattered or scared that I have that much power over your reading list!

All of my friends who’ve read this gave it 3 or 4 stars, but only one of them included a (short) review, so it’s difficult to see what attracted them. Most of the favourable reviews seem to focus on the relatability of its main character and Card’s storytelling. I don’t really dispute either of these qualities. But I have to admit that there is nothing here that makes me want to say, “You must read this book!”


message 3: by Dan (new)

Dan Schwent It sounds good on paper but I'd be a lot more eager to read this if it wasn't part of a series.


Ellen I thought this series improved as Alvin got older but I also do really enjoy Revolutionary-era stories, and particularly enjoyed Card's take on an alternate history.

On the subject of "books that can stand up to Ender's Game," have you read Pastwatch? That's probably my favorite non-Ender series OSC book.


message 5: by Terence (new)

Terence I'm going to have to disagree with Ellen about Pastwatch: The Redemption of Christopher Columbus. It's one of the few books that I finished that I gave 1 star too - usually if I finish a book it gets at least 2. (Sorry, no review - it's from my pre-GR life, and I don't want to reread it.)

I knew I had read this book but I now see that I rated the omnibus Vols. 1-3 version on GR. I thought it started out strong but after book 3, I lost interest. The same happened with his SF series The Memory of Earth, but I didn't get past book one in that (consider this an anti-recommendation).

Actually, you might - might, I say - like one of his earlier novels, Hart's Hope.


message 6: by Ben (new) - rated it 2 stars

Ben Babcock Dan wrote: “It sounds good on paper but I'd be a lot more eager to read this if it wasn't part of a series.”

Yes, and this book serves as little more than the starting point of the series. As I said in my review, it’s a proper story, but it probably isn’t what one would call “standalone” … it’s clear that this is just the beginning of a much longer journey for Alvin.

Regarding Pastwatch: yes, I believe I read it in Grade 11. So, long before I joined Goodreads! My vague recollection is that I found the idea very cool, because Card took the “rewrite history” plot and then added that palimpsest to it: they kept trying until they finally got it right. But I don’t know how much I liked it. It’s my intention to re-read it at some point.


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