Volume 17, Number 1, Spring, 1999

Legends edited by Robert Silverberg (TOR Fantasy, $27.95)

Heartfire by Orson Scott Card (TOR Books, $24.95)

Reviewed by Michael Grossberg

Legends never die, but they can fade with time. The mythic power of the legendary worlds glimpsed anew in Legends is likely to earn them a lasting place in the memories of those who thrill to heroic quests, magical adventures and the eternal battle between good and evil.

Edited by Robert Silverberg with helpful maps and illustrations, the robust 715-page anthology offers much more than 11 new short novels by today's masters of fantasy. As Silverberg argues in his perceptive introduction, fantasy is the oldest branch of imaginative literature, dating from the Sumerian tale of Gilgamesh (2,500 B.C.) to as far back as Ice Age Europe when "fur-clad shamans" recited tales of "gods and demons, of talismans and spells, of dragons and werewolves, of wondrous lands beyond the horizon." By skillfully fitting many wondrous lands into one volume, Legends makes a convincing case that the genre has been revitalized by today's best writers.

Silverberg defines the focus of fantasy as the "world beyond that of mundane reality," and humanity's struggle to assert dominance over that world. Certainly, the anthology's authors have dominated their field by creating an ambitious series of linked epic novels and stories: Anne McCaffrey (Pern), Ursula K. Le Guin (Earthsea), Orson Scott Card (Tales of Alvin Maker), Robert Jordan (The Wheel of Time), Tad Williams (Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn), Terry Pratchett (Discworld), George R.R. Martin (A Song of Ice and Fire), Terry Goodkind (The Sword of Truth), Raymond Feist (The Riftwar Saga), Silverberg (Majipoor), and the protean Stephen King (The Dark Tower).

Each writer contributes a new 40- to 80-page novel in their imagined universe. Each tale is introduced with an insightful overview of that world and a summary of previous books. Some tales bridge gaps in the major plot lines; a few take place well before or after those events. The result couldn't be more accessible to the uninitiated or more engrossing for fans.

The fantasies are varied in tone, from the sense of loss and ominious foreboding in Debt of Bones, Goodkind's tale of a wizard and Mother Confessor's efforts to avert a terrible war, to the satirical reversals and exploding stereotypes in The Sea and Little Fishes, Pratchett's latest Granny Weatherwax fable about an alleged wicked witch.

King builds upon his four Robert-Browning-inspired novels about Roland, last of the gunslingers, in The Little Sisters of Eluria. Set during the first book (The Gunslinger), when Roland is pursuing a black-robed magician, this dark and deft tale focuses on the heroic loner's attempt to escape from ghoulish succubi. King's fans will shudder and be satisfied, although this is more a creepy, bug-infested Western than a typical modern horror story.

Even the seemingly minor works brim with beguiling details. Although the wonder of McCaffrey's telepathic dragons is disappointingly absent from Runner of Pern, the intimate struggles and cozy textures of daily human life provides a taste of McCaffrey's wide, warm appeal. Dragons of a less cuddly sort uneasily share Le Guin's island world of Earthsea with humans, some of whom learn the skills of practicing magic.

Like Le Guin's acclaimed early-1970s Earthsea trilogy and 1992 sequel, Dragonfly ranks as a classic in its exploration of the power of language to define the self. In this beautifully written tale of metamorphosis, a young girl discovers her "true name" and undergoes an initiation into adulthood.

Another gem is Card's The Grinning Man, another rollicking tall tale about Alvin Maker's journey through an alternate-history colonial America. Davy Crockett and a chiseling miller receive their just deserts in this whimsical yarn.

Time will tell which of the above authors' sagas will join the Grimm Brothers and Hans Christian Anderson's collections as enduring fables. Ursula Le Guin and Stephen King can't be counted out, but I'm placing my bets on Orson Scott Card's visionary Tales of Alvin Maker.

Orson Scott Card burst upon the science-fiction scene in the 1980s with two successive Hugo award winners of spectacular scope and uncommon wisdom: Ender's Game and Speaker for the Dead. Yet his late-1980s fantasy trilogy (Seventh Son, Red Prophet, and Prentice Alvin), about a boy with a "knack," easily tops his first-rate science fiction.

Readers begged Card for years for more stories about Alvin Maker, a journeyman blacksmith in a colonial America where folk magic actually works and the American Revolution never happened. With Alvin Journeyman (1996) and the recently released Heartfire, Card's classic trilogy expands from one man's coming of age to the slow maturation of American civilization

Card, who grew up in Utah, often undergirds his fiction (notably, his five Homecoming novels) with a subtle Mormon metaphysics. Both a humanism and a devout spirituality pervade the Alvin Maker tales, in which some people have the knack of seeing the "heartfire" within souls, but others deny them.

Like its absorbing predecessors, Heartfire blends history and allegory, fictional and historical characters including the naturalist Audubon, the French novelist Balzac, and statesman John Adams to dramatize poignantly all of the issues that have divided America, from slavery, racism, and rampant statism to the mistreatment of Indians and the persecution of witches. Heartfire, which can be enjoyed on its own but is best read in sequence, achieves a Biblical intensity with its Cain-and-Abel subplot of Alvin's envious younger brother, its voodoo-enhanced revolt of angry black slaves, and Alvin's ongoing vision of building a shining city out west.

By the fifth novel's hopeful conclusion, Card has set the stage for a new American revolution. Just as J.R.R. Tolkien's landmark trilogy The Lord of the Rings resonated with archetypal British myths, Card's wise and witty Tales resonate with the deepest American themes and highest American ideals of "liberty and justice for all."

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