Orson Scott Card’s Enchantment is a retooled, contemporary take on the Sleeping Beauty fairy tale. But it also feels like a 1990s version of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court. Card uses the modern setting–and some contemporary moral questions–without mauling the source material too much, providing a surprisingly deep and entertaining read.
Ivan Smetski grew up during the twilight of the Soviet Union, his family converting to Judaism to gain visas to Israel that will ultimately pull them out from under Communist rule. But they end up moving to the United States, where Ivan grows and matures to a become a talented young man. He becomes an expert in the Old Church Slavonic language, gets engaged to a nice American girl and spends what little free time he has running for pleasure.
Ivan heads back to the Ukraine to do graduate linguistics work, promising his parents and fiance a swift return. But curiosity draws Ivan to a clearing he had discovered as a child, a sleeping princess in the center. The clearing and princess are still there, and Ivan overcomes obstacles–including a monstrous bear–to rescue her (with a kiss, no less).
This sets off a chain of events that takes Ivan back to 10th century Russia, back to 1999 America and then back to dark age Russia once more. Ivan’s morals and convictions are challenged repeatedly, and Card uses the narrative to raise some pretty deep questions about the nature of love, duty, and lots and lots about the nuances of folk religion and belief.
These nuances make the book tick. The cultural divide Ivan’s European/American Judaism and dark age pidgin Christianity causes no end of grief for the various characters (especially Ivan), but this element is not used as a simple ‘culture clash’ plot point; the author really does a great job of taking a step back and examining why certain cultures do certain things. Card also put a lot of thought into the nuts and bolts of time travel; Ivan wonders about this frequently, and they’re the sort of honest questions you wish people would ask in other books and films.
Card’s prose is occasionally hamfisted, but he’s not a bad writer. The characters are molded from well-worn clay, but the result is pretty fresh. And the plot moves along at a rapid clip without dropping in quality too much. And Card’s inclusion of eastern European myth and folklore–which binds wonderfully with the story–is seamless.
But a few things were groan-inducing, including dialogue that is incredibly expository. Card also includes several scenes that are probably meant to illustrate the possibility of fate or predestination, but come across incredibly hammy–one of the few living people in modern society to speak Old Church Slavonic just happens to travel back to a time period where Old Slavonic is spoken, and so on. This sort of thing happens enough to make it wearisome.
By the end, I really was drawn to the novel. Card took a worn fairy tale and turned it into something new, something fresh and worth investigating again.
by Orson Scott Card
Published in 1999 by Del Ray