Thursday, February 7, 2013

Review - Hart's Hope by Orson Scott Card

Short review: Beauty is wronged and her vengeance is terrible, but the Gods create Orem to end her reign.

A young princess wronged
Carries out awful revenge
And the gods stop her

Full review: Hart's Hope is an early work by Orson Scott Card. The book is told as a series of little vignettes, recounting history in an almost fairy tale like fashion. Each tale starts with a title that describes what will happen in the following text, and then proceeds to do so. The story is told from the perspective of Enziquelvinisensee Evelvenin, although this information is not revealed until the closing pages of the book and recounts the rise and fall of the terrible Queen Beauty. The story takes place in Burland, a magical land watched over by four gods: The Hart, a powerful symbol of male virility and power, the Sweet Sisters, conjoined twins who preside over all female concerns, and the nascent God, who appears to be a fantasy representation of the Judeo-Christian God, including his followers' insistence that other Gods should not be worshiped. In Burland, magic is derived from blood. The more powerful and important to the caster the source of that blood, the more powerful the resulting magic. Living blood is the most powerful kind, making most magical acts take place in the limited time between when the sacrifice's blood is shed and when the sacrifice dies.

The story starts with a prophetic dream sent to the general Zymas, the right hand man of Nasilee, the King of Burland. Nasilee is apparently a cruel tyrant, and the gods send Zymas to secure a replacement in the form of Palicrovol, a young count who is presumably destined to be a better ruler of the land. After overthrowing Nasilee, Palicrovol cements his position as ruler by forcibly taking Nasilee's twelve year old daughter Asineth as his bride and publicly raping her to demonstrate the consummation of the marriage. Palicroval's wizard advisor Sleeve advises killing Asineth immediately afterwards, as Palicroval intends to marry Enziquelvinisensee (the most beautiful woman in the world), but Palicroval instead spares her life and sends her off into exile with Sleeve to keep an eye on her. Asineth has a child (a magically powerful ten-month child to boot) and after learning the ways of both men's magic and women's magic she sacrifices her own child to acquire near omnipotent power. Using this power she defeats all the gods, binding them into forms in which their powers are rendered ineffective. She then conquers Burland and sets about taking her revenge. She steals Enziquelvinisensee's beauty for her own, making her victim appear to be a hideously ugly woman, and takes the name Queen Beauty for herself. Her ironic punishments continue as she transforms Sleeve into an idiot lecherous dwarf, Zymas into a withered weak old man, and then forces Palicrovol to unwillingly have sex with her in her new body before she exiles him to the countryside. Beauty assumes the throne of Burland in the city of Hart's Hope, and renames it Inwit.

Three hundred years pass in which Beauty rules Burland, tormenting Palicrovol and the three twisted creatures that had once been his closest companions. Because Beauty can see through his eyes, Palicrovol has taken to wearing golden discs over his eyes and hiring cadres of wizards to try to ward off her power. Beauty torments anyone who helps Palicrovol, and foils any attempt he makes to retake Hart's Hope and overthrow her. The Gods manipulate events so that Palicrovol finds a peasant woman on a riverbank and fathers a child with her: Orem, the protagonist of the story and who is blessed with immunity to magic of all kinds. Orem grows to a man and finds his way to Inwit. After a series of adventures in which he befriends a street urchin, meets the Sweet Sisters working in a brothel, offends a wizard, and ends up imprisoned, Orem comes to the attention of Beauty. Beauty, having had a prophetic dream herself, takes him as her husband. With Orem's help, she conceives a child, a twelve month child. Orem is the "Little King" and wanders the palace, amusing the courtiers who regard him as a fool, but learning from the cryptic statements of Sleeve and Enziquelvinisensee the truth of Beauty's power, and that she intends to kill someone close to her and use the power of her victim's blood to extend her reign and increase her power. Orem assumes that he is the intended victim, but finds out the child is. After releasing the Gods from their imprisonment, Orem learns that the child's sacrifice is necessary to destroy Beauty's power. In the end, Orem accepts the sacrifice, Beauty is overthrown, Palicrovol takes Inwit, and seeks revenge against Orem for daring to sit on the throne of Burland even temporarily.

In a way, despite her vicious nature, one ends up feeling sorry for Beauty. Despite having attained power sufficient to allow her to master the gods themselves, she can think of no use for this power other than simply playing out her revenge against those who wronged her. Her entire being is consumed with tormenting those who wronged her (and those close to those who wronged her). Oddly, it does not appear that Beauty is a bad ruler of Burland, just an indifferent one. There is no evidence that she does anything particularly nasty towards anyone other than Palicrovol and those close to him (although the punishments meted out to lawbreakers in Inwit seem particularly harsh, but no one in the book seems to think of them as being overly so). Beauty ends up seeming like nothing more than a scarred little girl drunk with power and unsure as to where to go after she has gotten her revenge other than to simply extend her revenge ad infinitum. Beauty has reached a dead end. She has no further ambitions, no love for anyone, and no hope of a future other than a dreary continuation of her vengeful existence.

On the other hand, none of those who oppose her save the virtuous Enziquelvinisensee and the innocent Orem seem to be particularly nice people either. Zymas, while in Nasilee's service was brutal and vicious, slaughtering entire villages that failed to pay their taxes. Palicrovol was willing to rape a twelve year old girl in a public display in his quest for power, and upon returning to power after his long exile immediately seeks to kill the man who was instrumental in restoring him to authority. Sleeve wanted Asineth killed and is willing to kill a year old child to end Beauty's reign (even Enziquelvinisensee is willing to go along with this, making her maybe not so virtuous after all). In the book, mercy is rarely rewarded and often seems cruel: Asineth's life is spared due to an act of mercy, which results in the terrible events of the book. A man who befriends Orem and tells him how to enter Inwit is killed; a street urchin who teaches him the ways of life in Inwit is imprisoned and maimed; a courtier who befriends Orem is forced into exile and so on. Every act of mercy in the book takes on a dark aura. While imprisoned, Orem and the other prisoners spit and urinate on each other to keep themselves awake despite the bitter cold of the cages in which they are confined. To restore God to his rightful place, his body must be killed. To restore the Sweet Sisters, they must be reconjoined.

Love and sex are also twisted. Of the four sex acts described in the book, two are outright acts of rape, while the other two are acts of power: engaged in solely to create a child for a particular purpose. Even actual love, such as that the wizard Gallowglass feels for his dead wife and children is twisted, as he uses his magical powers to keep them in a halfway state between life and death, unable to let them go despite their desire to be released from their horrific condition. Orem even has to sacrifice himself to save the Hart, although he is restored so he can complete his part in the Gods' design. In the end, despite Orem's sacrifice of himself and his own child to fulfill the ambitions of the Gods, even he is cast aside. Unlike the heroes of many fantasy stories in which the protagonist is heaped with honors for overthrowing the villain, having accomplished his purpose, Orem is dealt with as a tool the Gods no longer need, and set aside to be driven into exile and hunted by a vengeful king.

Hart's Hope is written in the style of a fairy tale, but it is certainly a dark and depressing one. Despite the nightmare quality of the world depicted, the story remains compelling. Every character, no matter how objectionable in personality, is well-drawn. Even at its grimmest, the story contains a thin thread of hope that things might be better. This is a frightening and sad book, but one that is well-worth reading for any fantasy fan.

1984 Locus Award Nominees

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  1. A brilliant, brilliant book. I don't even have the words for it.

    1. @Anonymous: It is one of the high points in Card's career.

    2. @Erhmon Forest: I wish Card had kept writing as well as he did in this book. I have found that he has been very uneven over his career, and often his more obscure books, like this one, are his best.

  2. I wish he had written more of this fantastic [in every way] world. Does anyone know of others beyond the Torturer series by Gene Wolfe? [also dark and compelling with a nightmare quality about all 5 books]

    1. @Erhmon Forest: If you are looking for dark fantasy, Ellen Datlow has edited several anthologies with numerous stories within them that you will likely enjoy.