Wednesday, 11 June 2003

Orson Scott Card: Hart's Hope (1983)

Edition: Tor, 1988
Review number: 1165

There is an immense number of ways that fantasy authors have used to depict magic. Usually, particularly in writers who are just re-using the standard accoutrements of the genre, it is basically an alternate way to perform actions, or a way to do the impossible. This reduces it to a narrative convenience, which is not in the end terribly interesting unless it makes it possible for the author to concentrate on other things. There are few novels which present magic as something innate in the world yet disturbing; Hart's Hope is one of their number.

The plot of Hart's Hope is basically similar to that of many fantasy stories, a tale of magic and an usurped throne. A king, himself an usurper, is deposed by the daughter of the man he ousted. She was raped and discarded by him as part of the legitimization of his rule, but now, taking the name Beauty, she uses dark and forbidden magic not just to take her revenge but to submit the whole kingdom to an regime of unprecedented rigour - generally just by heaping obscene torments on the former king and his friends. She is even able to chain up the gods, rendering them virtually powerless. (Of them, the Hart is the symbol of masculine power, the Sisters of the feminine, while God has certain aspects of Christianity as it must have seemed to the pagans of northern Europe in the early Middle Ages.)

What makes Hart's Hope different is its atmosphere, which is cruel and dank, brutal and sordid. The nature of the magic in Card's world is part of this atmosphere; it is about the shedding of blood - by cutting oneself or by using menstrual blood, or, in the case of Beauty, by the sacrifice of a child carried to a ten month term. I was recently reading John Sutherland's book about puzzles in nineteenth century fiction, Is Heathcliff A Murderer?, and one of his articles comments on how strong a taboo there was against mentioning menstruation. Even in the twentieth century, with so many taboos broken that some writers seem to transgress for the sake of it, it is unusual to find a novel where menstrual blood has such an important (and uncontrived) place. This means that it provides a large part of the disturbing nature of magic in Hart's Hope.

This is quite early Orson Scott Card, and his work since has been more accessible and mainstream. Hart's Hope display at least as much imagination as any of Card's later writing, even if it is more difficult to get into.

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