Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Book Review: Enchantment by Orson Scott Card

Did you know that Orson Scott Card wrote a retelling of Sleeping Beauty? Me, neither! How did this one get past me?! There are few things I love more than a good fairy tale. This one feels different than most, though, and at first I had trouble putting my finger on why it was so different. But then I read a beautifully written article by Anne Thériault that helped me make sense of it.

According to Thériault, fairy tales were originally created by women and for women, and told out loud in kitchens and at sewing tables: "They're women’s whispered desires and fears, neatly wrapped up in fantastical narratives filled with sex, violence and humour. Fairy tales speak of the things that women most hoped for – a prince, a castle, a happy ending – and those that they were most afraid of – that their children would be taken from them, that men would hurt them or take advantage of them, that their family wouldn’t be provided for." Eventually, the stories were published and sanitized. Instead of reflecting what women wanted and feared, fairy tales became prim guides for how women should behave. I'm summarizing, of course, but the article explains it all in detail.

You might be asking, "What does that have to do with Enchantment?" Plenty! Enchantment is different from other fairy tales because it follows the story of a young man. And in typical "I am Orson Scott Card, and I will use fiction to tell you about my values," fashion, Card uses the story to demonstrate his ideas about how husbands should treat their wives. But please don't assume the worst. It actually comes across very well.

Oh, and it's also a really great time-travelling adventure with witches and magic and bears!

Here's the premise: Ivan is a young Jewish scholar living in the 20th century. While visiting a distant relative, he accidentally awakens Princess Katerina. Katerina has slept in a Carpathian forest for more than a thousand years. When Katerina awakens, she and Ivan are transported to her time. Against his will, Ivan is betrothed to Katerina and thrown into her people's war against the evil witch Baba Yaga.

Yes, Baba Yaga. Instead of basing his story on well-known French fairy tales, Card ties Sleeping Beauty's story in with less familiar Russian fairy tales. It's a brilliant move that makes a story we all know feel new.

Unfortunately, 20th century life hasn't prepared Ivan for the physical demands of Medieval life. Katerina and her people enjoy humiliating Ivan at every opportunity. Soon, Ivan and Katerina flee to the 20th century, to buy time to plot against Baba Yaga. Once there, Katerina understands the hardships Ivan has endured for her... And I don't want to say any more.

I don't like the rigid gender roles throughout much of the book, but I do like that women (and magic performed exclusively by women) play a prominent role in the story. Interestingly, the strict Christian missionaries support the use of magic; they acknowledge that it goes against teachings but feel that the people's survival is most important. Also, the book doesn't follow the typical tropes about old, ugly crones--and I love that. In this story, older women are valued mentors to younger women. Let's just say that the book passes the Bechdel test.

There's a lot to discuss, but I don't want to ruin the story. Has anyone else read it? What did you think?

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