My entry in AW's Book Review Blog Chain
Years ago, while reading a book about writing by Orson Scott Card, I came across his account of how he came to write the novel Hart's Hope. In and of itself this was a story of magic. He almost doodled a map on some unusual paper (interestingly, some special paper is how Stephen King began writing The Dark Tower), in the process creating a locale--what became the city of the novel's title. One of its most unique features was its different gates, each designed for a type of visitor or inhabitant. Hence a Merchant's Gate, a Priest's Gate, a Warrior's Gate, etc. And of course the hidden gate for wizards.
Likewise, Card later took an idea from a workshop on writing that he often gives, in which ideas are simply tossed out then explored at breakneck speed to see what you get. In this case, he was exploring magic and its cost. What he came up with was blood. Magic fueled by blood, but with the type and nature of the blood impacting the degree of power involved. Human blood gets you more than, say, insect blood. Use up all the blood in a person, and you start to do some serious reality-bending. But wait--it gets more chilling. Young blood is more valuable still. Hence nothing is more powerful than a newborn--nothing except maybe your own newborn's blood...
Prepare yourself. I'm about to gush. Hart's Hope is one of the most powerful, moving and mind-bending fantasy novels in the world. I unhesitatingly recommend it. For one thing (and this is in many ways one of the most minor), it bears little or no resemblance to Tolkien. Please don't view that as a dig at Lord of the Rings. But it seems obvious that way, way too many epic fantasies are little more than re-workings of Tolkien's trilogy--or stories in a fantasy environment with utterly modern sensibilities (Kurtz, Eddings, etc.). Not so this work.
It seems to be tale of a boy named Orem. Note the words "seems to be" because the narrator (and that person's identity is one many surprises) says more than once it is not. Orem is an illegitimate son of a King, a chosen one with a unique ability that will allow the overthrow of a tyrant. Just from those words, one imagines a generic kind of plot already, yes? Don't worry. For one thing, the tyrant in question is not Orem's father--who is a good, maybe great but far-from-perfect leader. And the quest (of sorts) upon which Orem embarks is many times more heart-wrenching than that of Frodo, Thomas Covenant, Harry Potter, etc. Nor is he give a choice. The Gods in this story have been bound--the Hart who governs the affairs of men, the Sweet Sisters (a pair of conjoined twins melded at the face) who govern and oversee women's truths, and the God Called God who has only recently come to this land. Only a great magic could have chained the Gods as was done, and one of the powers of this book is one understands precisely the darkness of the person who performed this great and terrible magic. We meet her when she is a child. But all great magic is terrible magic. To free the Gods and overthrow the tyrant will take another great magic--which is to say, something terrible.
Yes, the book remains realistic in description and feel, given that fact that magic is real and visible. What it also manages is to capture the "feel" of a genuine fairie tale, as opposed to the sanitized versions with which we (or at least I) grew up. In the original, after all, Cinderella's sisters mutilated themselves to fit into the golden slipper. My favorite version of Beauty and the Beast has the former character wear out several pairs of iron shoes searching for her husband. And the Soldier-Who-Cheated-Death ends on a very mixed note indeed. Likewise the tale of Orem is one of real sacrifice, yet has that compelling charm of a fairie tale, or a myth, or a dream.
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