Reviewed January 18, 2008.
Del Rey Books (Random House), New York, 1999. 419 pages.
Sonderbooks Stand-out 2007: #1, Fantasy Fiction
I didn’t have to consider for a second how highly to rate this book. Enchantment was the best book I had read in a very long time.
What if Sleeping Beauty woke up today? Orson Scott Card gives a possible answer to that question. He weaves in Russian fairy tales, a Russian Jewish family coming to America, and ancient local gods of Russia. In the process, he crafts a beautiful love story which is at once thought-provoking, suspenseful, and utterly captivating.
The book opens when Ivan Smetski’s parents tell him that he is really a Jew named Itzak Shlomo. The time is right for the family to declare who they are and leave Russia. Before they leave, Ivan discovers a strange place in the woods. He thinks he sees the face of a beautiful woman, asleep, covered with leaves. Then something moves in the leaves near her and comes straight toward him. He runs in terror.
As an adult, Ivan goes back to Russia. He thinks that memory must have just been his vivid imagination. Nonetheless, he feels compelled to visit the place. When the monster moves in the leaves, this time he stands his ground.
The story that follows is as beautiful as the fairy tales it calls to mind, but gives us more details. He shows us that it’s not so easy to deal with a Princess when you’re only a common young man. He comes up against such formidable figures as Baba Yaga and the Bear god of Russia. I especially enjoy learning the reason why Baba Yaga has a house on chicken legs that can move around the country.
One reason I love this story is that I once tried to write a book based on the same idea—Sleeping Beauty waking up today. The idea seemed good, but the logistics bogged me down. How would she get papers to deal with the modern world? How would she cope with the sheer weight of all her family and friends being dead? How would she deal with modern life? How would she handle the language?
Orson Scott Card takes care of every obstacle I found and makes it look easy. Ivan is uniquely prepared to deal with a girl from old Russia. Like his father, he is a student of ancient Russian languages. Instead of treating this like a coincidence, we feel that Ivan was specially chosen for this task.
I won’t give away the other ways the author turns obstacles into features of the story. His love story is also wonderful. The two don’t like each other at first, but we can see their attitudes gradually changing, as each discovers the other’s true worth.
This is the sort of book I will want to read again every few years. A real treasure.