Alvin Maker and the hazards of the long series

In recent years fantasy series, possibly spurred on by The Wheel of Time, seem to be getting longer, and I have no problem with that. I love the depth these series offer, I love the twists and turns they can take, and I love having a next book and a next book and a next book to look forward to. But it’s pretty clear there are hazards involved, and I’m not just talking about dying before the series is done.

Any book a writer writes reflects where there mind is at the time they write it, and of course minds change over time. Plus, sometimes in writing you come up with an idea that seems really good in your head, but when you try to put it into story form, it just doesn’t work they way you thought it would. (I had an idea for a story about a dedicated Cubs fan who becomes convinced that the team loses every time he tunes into or goes to a game, so he deliberately avoids all broadcasts, and the team starts winning and is World Series bound, so his lifelong dream is coming true, but if he engages it in any way, he’ll ruin it. Felt great when I thought about it–even sounds good to me as a write it out–but I’ve never been able to get it to work on paper).

Which brings us to Orson Scott Card’s Tales of Alvin Maker. The first book, Seventh Son, is right up there with Card’s best work; book two, Red Prophet, is haunting; and Prentice Alvin has some penetrating character work (and some overbroad characters, but oh well). But then we get to Alvin Journeyman, which has its strengths, but also its definite problems. It seems that about seven years passed between the publication of those last two books (something Card addresses in a foreword), and it’s possible that in that time, an idea that first seemed engaging to Card turned out to be not so good. I’ll keep this spoiler-free, but when Prentice Alvin ends, the direction of what’s going to happen next seems pretty clear. And in Alvin Journeyman, a few of those threads are continued, but it seems like the main story Card thought he was going to tell didn’t interest him that much anymore.

The problem is, though, that he’d laid some groundwork. He had a book out that pointed him in one direction, and seven years later he wanted to go another. So the first section of Alvin Journeyman has Card unable to focus on the main story, and instead being a little rushed in extricating himself from that plot so he can start the one he’s really interested in. What was a good idea seven years earlier, in his head, wasn’t working for him, so he had to bob and weave to get to something that was. That plot still isn’t perfect, but it isn’t as rushed and awkward as the initial section.

Now I could be wrong in my explanation of why things went wrong here, but in my mind something went wrong, and that’s too bad. I still like Alvin, I still think Card has some interesting points about what it means to be a leader and a teacher, and how people react to strong leaders, and there are still two books written, and one not yet finished, that might get the series back to full strength. But now that a couple of decades have passed since Seventh Son first came out, I hope Card remembers enough about the writer who dreamed up the idea of the series to be able to finish it well.

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