Card, Orson Scott. 1999. Enchantment. New York: Del Rey.
Reviewed 16 April 1999
Savage must be off his rocker. Of course it's fantasyit's got Baba Yaga, Russian fairytales, Sleeping Beauty, a princess . . .
This is a science fiction novel in which the science is anthropology, in the same sense as Speaker for the Dead. But the science is not demystification. This is not a clumsy, heartless "debunking" of the Slavonic/protoRussian version of Sleeping Beauty (a truly chilling tale, even in my rusty Russian) or of Baba Yaga. Card blends the spirit of scientific inquiry with respect for cultural traditions. There is real science and real magic here, but Enchantment is more than just a pale, derivative pseudomagical realist exercise in "high" prose.
The general setting of this novel is the study of folklore in a dead language. Ivan Smetski (or, as the case may be, Itzhak Shlomo) (note: none of these names are random) is an American graduate student who emigrated from the Ukraine as a child. Just before leaving for America, he foundbut did not investigatea mystery in the forest. When he returns to the Ukraine for dissertation field work, he does investigate the mystery. And thereby hang several tales.
There is a great deal of Clarke's Law magic going on here. When Ivan finally decides to fight Baba Yaga, he does so with gunpowder and firebombs that he prepares in the fairytale past. It's no coincidence that some of the tales of Baba Yaga describe exactly such weapons. In this way, Card is stepping into the shoes of Piper's Lord Kalvan of Otherwhen (out of print) and de Camp's Lest Darkness Fall. As a "crossover story," Enchantment works far better than most.
Spoiler alert The best example of this novel's careful balance between science and legend is Baba Yaga's hut. The transformationin both legend and "reality"of a hijacked 747 in the Ukrainian forest to a spinning hut with chicken legs really asks as many questions as it answers. It's very comforting to apply such a technological explanation. Of course, that concerns only proximate cause. It doesn't concern first cause, which is what legends are "supposed" to explain . . . End of spoiler
The one weakness of the novel is the postclimax resolution. Without giving away too much, it's far too neat. Ivan becomes a prince in a sense he never could have. More crucially, if Baba Yaga did survive, why hasn't she pursued vengeance? This is only a minor flaw, but a very noticeable one.
Overall rating: Excellent (award candidate). This novel marks a return to Card's normal theme of aggressive tolerance, and is a considerable improvement over the ashes of Alvin Maker. It is not quite as good as either Pastwatch or Card's masterpiece, Speaker for the Dead. But it's not far behind, and shows how the science of anthropology often supports exceptional science fiction.
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