Hart's Hope is a novel by Orson Scott Card. Card is a novelist. That's what he does for a living. He seems to enjoy it.
The copyright date on this one is 1983, which is early in Card's career. His first novel was A Planet Called Treason (1979) (more recently in print in a revised version titled Treason). In those years, Card had a habit of reworking his material: Ender's Game was a short story before it was a novel, Treason went through two different versions, Hot Sleep mutated into The Worthing Saga, and so on. In those same years, Card was a darn good writer. All things must pass.
Hart's Hope is "fantasy", so-called. There are kings (three), queens (two), and magic (lots). The gods are real, they do stuff, etc.
For whatever reason, few writers of any perceptible worth have bothered with "fantasy" these last few decades, and Card is one of the few. He's not writing escapist nonsense. He wants to grab you by the throat and shake you 'til your brains rattle.
This is a Card novel. His usual preoccupations float to the surface: It's a "coming of age" story. There are agonizing moral choices to be made, the kind where any possible decision will screw somebody firmly to the wall. Those choices are usually made on the run, under terrible pressure. The characters endure horrible torments. There's a lot of blood. Sacrifice is meaningful, both self-sacrifice and the sacrifice of others. In Card's moral universe, nothing is free, and the cost rises with the value of what's bought.
The plot, in a nutshell: A bad king rules the land. The gods command a good man, Count Palicrovol, to rebel against the king, and they command the King's best general to join the Count. The Count wins. To clarify the issue of his legitimacy as a ruler, he forcibly marries the late King's twelve-year-old daughter, and consummates the marriage in front of about ten thousand spectators. You could justify that as a sacrifice on the altar of legality: Nobody can now question his right to rule. Rebellions are destructive. They're worth avoiding. In theory, he's doing this to avoid much worse things than the admittedly atrocious rape of one young girl. He is a genuinely good man; we know this because the author tells us so, and also because he consistently acts as such for a very, very long time. This is background, the first 27 pages.
Palicrovol's real mistake lies in letting the girl live. In due time, she bears a child, she sacrifices the child to gain unthinkable power (magic is done with blood, in this story), and she returns as Queen Beauty. She takes over and rules the land for the next three hundred years.
She's as evil as they come, but she's not interested in what you might call macro-evil. She just wants to live well, and to torment Palicrovol and his friends. She rules the capitol city, and willingly lets him govern the rest of the country. She inflicts endless gruesome maladies and indignities on him, but never kills him. She keeps him alive so he can suffer. Through all this time, Palicrovol rules wisely and justly.
Yes, it's a fairy tale. Didn't I tell you that?
In the end, inevitably, Queen Beauty gets her just desserts, but there's an issue that Card doesn't seem to notice: For three hundred years, all of the kingdom outside the capitol is governed as well as any fairy-tale kingdom ever was (not great, but tolerable). The capitol, meanwhile, is governed about as well as any real-life medieval city ever was. Once Queen Beauty is deposed, Palicrovol the just king will live out the remainder of his allotted span, starting again at the age he was when afflicted with his temporary immortality. That means he'll die, and how wise and just will his successors be? No dynasty ever stayed the course for long, not even those few that started well. I'd argue that the evil Queen Beauty's weird rule is an absolute bonanza for the kingdom: She's keeping a great king in office forever.
Along the way, the author throws in some gratifyingly peculiar furniture: There's a fashionable wizard who keeps his dead daughters and wife pickled in brine, half-reviving them with pinches of their own dried blood for the occasional conversation. He's consumed by grief, which he keeps alive by keeping their pathetic damp corpses around. He thinks they're comforted by his ongoing attentions, but in fact they yearn desperately for a final death. It's a pleasing little miniature embedded in the larger story. Both are about what happens when you can't let go, see?
Still, it's not a perfect book.
King Palicrovol is not the hero; the hero is a fool: A bastard son of the king who doesn't know it, a nice young man who never quite figures out what's going on until it's too late. It's a nice riff, but it's a problem for the novel. In this kind of story, an impotent hero puts a mushiness at the center of things. Some readers may not mind that. I did; it's the same problem as in Ursula K. Le Guin's The Farthest Shore, where the character who's treated as the protagonist is really just along for the ride.
There's another flaw here, and one that will annoy any functioning vertebrate: Card throws in purely gratuitous references to James Joyce and T.S. Eliot. The hero's mother is named Molly, but her "secret" name is Bloom1. She may be an unfaithful wife, but only because a god commands it, and there's nothing else in her character that evokes Molly Bloom at all. There's a goddess named Shantih2, a god (named God) whose scriptures mention "empty cisterns and exhausted wells"3, and a street urchin who casually mentions that his drowned father has "pearls instead of eyes"4. I'd lay that last one to Shakespeare, if it didn't come along a page after a line stolen from The Waste Land. The question is, why? What's the point? The book builds up an elaborate maze of its own symbols, internally consistent and meaningful. They make clear sense in terms of dream logic or myth logic, whichever you prefer. These few scattered references to other works don't hook into the symbolic meat of the story in any way that makes sense to me. There's no follow-up. They look like whims, like the weakness of an inexperienced writer who wants to let you know he's read the stuff. That's stupid: Every native speaker of English has read it. They're pretty words, the Eliot lines, but they're not Card's words. He just slapped them in there, and they don't belong. He should've known better. Pretty words aren't what he does best.
Aside from that, it's not a bad book.
1 Page 50.
2 Page 242.
3 Page 109.
4 Page 110.