Alvin Maker returns in this, the fifth book of an acclaimed series that is a wonderful re-creation of American history. If hexes were real and people could look into your heart, this is the way America might have been.

Beginning with "Seventh Son," each new book in the fantasy series brings its own surprises. Card creates his own 1820s America, a land where the United States is only one of several countries occupying the Eastern Seaboard, where the King of England lives in exile in what we know as the Southern States (called the Crown Colonies), and where New England keeps its ties to England itself. It's a land where "knacks," such as the ability to dowse water, bend steel or converse with animals, are unquestioned.In Card's storytelling, he's free to manipulate real historical figures at will. Thus Honore de Balzac is a shrewd, carousing traveling companion and Jean-Jacques Audubon paints his images of birds with the help of a young mystic who can persuade birds to pose.

So it's an engaging and fascinating world that Alvin Maker occupies.

Alvin came to us in the first book as a child full of promise. As the seventh son of a seventh son, he has the potential to be a Maker, a person whose enormous supernatural abilities are only rarely seen on earth. In each succeeding book we watch Alvin grow. (Card says Alvin's is an allegorical American history based on the life of Joseph Smith, though non-Mormons will be oblivious to that.)

This latest, "Heartfire," takes its name from the inner light of each person - the soul, if you will. Alvin is now a journeyman trying to define his vision of a new society by searching throughout New England, where witchery is punishable by death. He has changed his name to Smith, since he is a blacksmith. He's married, but his wife, Peggy Guester (who can read everyone's heartfire, as well as the future), is in the Crown Colonies, trying to prevent war over slavery. The book tells both stories, ultimately bringing the two together again.

It's a good story, with engaging and thoughtful dialogue backing up the action. One of the more chilling encounters occurs when a young New England woman reports Alvin to the authorities as a possible witch. She is then interrogated by a witcher, a prosecutor authorized to seek out witches and try them for their lives.

"I have done no evil," she claims.

"All men are evil," said Quill. "The natural man is the enemy of God, that's what Paul said. Are you therefore better than other people?"

"No, I'm a sinner like anyone else."

"So I thought," said Quill. "But your deposition shows that these men called you by name and begged you to go with them. Why would they do that, if they did not count you among their number, as a fellow witch?"

Orson Scott Card is firmly established as a master storyteller. His reputation was earned before this series with his award-winning science fiction, which began with "Enders Game," and in his more serious work "Saints," a historical novel based on strong LDS pioneer women.

Card has authored more than 40 novels. He has his own Web site, (http://www.hatrack.com), where readers discuss his work; he explains his writing philosophy and even posts chapters of his books as he writes them.

In one of his discussions, Card says he spends a great deal of his time early in a book establishing characters so that readers will understand them later. Passages of introspection, memory, attitude and analysis are almost entirely missing from the latter portions of his books, he explains, and the books become almost pure action.

That may explain what happens to a book like "Heartfire." You can easily read it and enjoy it as a story on its own, but without having read the earlier works, especially the first and second books, you will miss why the Alvin Maker series has such a devoted following.