“Are you so clumsy that no one gave you any work to do?” asked the king. “Look at your arms and shoulders—I don’t know if you could lift a basket of flowers.”
“I lifted the stone that blinded the bear,” said Ivan, getting a little annoyed.
Katerina looked concerned. “My father is teasing you,” she said.
Ways of showing humor must have changed a lot over the centuries, then. It sounded to Ivan like he was being insulting.
“In my land,” said Ivan, “I’m regarded as a…” He had no idea how to say athlete in Old Church Slavonic. It wasn’t a concept likely to be useful in the liturgy or histories. “As a good runner.”
The king’s face went white. “They say this to your face? That you run?”
Ivan had to think frantically to guess at what he had said wrong. Then it dawned on him. “Not running from battle,” he said. “Running races. Two men side by side, then they run and run and see who arrives first.”
“We have slaves carry our messages,” said the king.
“Then I suppose no one but the slaves will run races with me,” Ivan said, chuckling. But he found himself chuckling alone. So much for humorous banter. Apparently the jokes would go only one way around here.
“I’ll bet you’re not Christian, either,” said the king.
Author: Orson Scott Card
Synopsis: While visiting family in the Ukraine, Russian-American graduate student Ivan returns to a place that haunted him as a child: a clearing in a forest, where a beautiful princess sleeps beneath fallen leaves, guarded by a bear. A kiss awakes the princess, Katerina, upon which Ivan finds himself betrothing himself to her in order to save them from the bear and the witch Baba Yaga.
The first of many problems with that betrothal is that Ivan is engaged to another woman back in America. But as he follows Katerina into her world, a thousand years into the past, he faces more immediate difficulties: her disdain and that of her people, his own physical ineptitude for battle, and the complication of having a scientific mind when pitted in a life-or-death struggle against raw and malevolent magic.
Notes: This story is a retelling of the Sleeping Beauty tale in the context of the Baba Yaga mythos, and therefore stakes at least a dual claim on the interest of any fairy tale fan. It's well done; Russian language, folklore, superstition and political situation are portrayed with Card’s characteristic humanity, as are the respective immersions of the chronologically challenged young couple into each other’s cultures. The latter is notably hard to pull off—a young academic with an American standard of living plunged into a culture that values men for physical strength, a Dark Ages princess faced with airplanes and modern noise—but Card makes it believable.
Like all Card’s best works, the narrative is lined with subtle but powerful insights, some stated in his characters’ words, some in their deeds. There’s quite a lot about sex; this isn’t a children’s fairy tale retelling. It's handled with gentleness and decency, however, along with a beauty rarely found in modern treatment. It’s also handled with an eye to redemption, as are the dealings with Christianity and Judaism and the old Russian gods.
It’s a good story, and I dropped a lot of things I was supposed to be doing in order to find out how it ended as quickly as possible. I might still prefer Card’s sci-fi, which has a long-lasting hold on my imagination, but it seems his fantasy is also worth reading.