The Crystal City

by Orson Scott Card

Callahan's Con

by Spider Robinson

Review by Matt Urick

Here are two different approaches to keeping the latest release in a popular long ongoing series relevant.

The first three books in the Alvin Maker series by Orson Scott Card were heralded as something new in the landscape of American fantasy. Each was a tale of an alternate American history where some people had "knacks" that were akin to psychic powers and each was nominated for the Hugo for the best novel of its respected year. Orson Scott Card then went on in other directions to the disappointment of the fans of this series, promising he would return eventually.

When the next book appeared, it was with much less hoopla. This trend seems to have continued. I knew the latest, The Crystal City, had been released in hardback in 2003 and was waiting for the paperback edition. I figured when it finally came out the local Barnes & Noble would display it in a way that would attract attention to potential buyers. Time passed and when it finally sunk in that I would have to look more actively for it, it had already been out for four months.

True, some of the anticipation has died as the later books pale in comparison to the original three. But that would have been true of almost any effort and the later books still brought much enjoyment to the fans of this series.

One of the strong points of The Crystal City is that it once again moves the series toward the goal that was laid out in the early novels. Finally, Alvin figures out a way to attempt to create the crystal city he seems destined to build and finally makes a start of it by the end of the book. He and his wife Peggy have been trying so hard to avert a civil war between the American nations that the reader wonders if he'll ever actually get around to it.

Still this book, as the other later ones, lacks the suspense instilled in the first ones. In those, Alvin was such a threat to the evil Unmaker that it was always creating sinister undercurrents of intrigue that could culminate in a deadly menace at any moment. Now the most troubling thing to Calvin is his relationship with Peggy who lets her fears for his future keep her distant. Although by the end there may be a break through, and now the series can really move toward its needed conclusion.

But how does an open-ended series keep its momentum? Although Spider Robinson is telling the story in the same old way, Callahan's Con is not the same old Callahan story. Instead of straight sf, this time Spider is trying to fuse sf with South Florida gangster fiction.

While the addition of the unfamiliar (at least to me) does bring in a fresh sea breeze to the material, there is still too much stale familiarity to it. There is some of the usual word play thanks to the verbal impediments of two new regulars who seem created for just this reason. There is also another funny song parody. In the past these things made the books seem like wonderful parties that Spider snuck you into and then put his arm around your shoulder and shared secrets of good living and other things. Now it seems just to be de rigueur.

There is also too much that is familiar about the plot. The "con" refers not to an sf convention but to a confidence game the old gang has to pull off to discourage a persistent hoodlum from plying his protection racket in the bar before he finds out about the special abilities of the patron. This is new, but the methods used in sorting all this out have been demonstrated amply in the earlier novels. One also well knows that somehow something will go awfully wrong and only a giant mind meld will once again save all.

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