Oh Joseph Campbell, can any tale survive the wake of your monomyth unscathed? Your reductionism reaches inexorably through history and geography, spreading anywhere the firing of neurons ignites language. Depending on one’s disposition, your unassailable paradigm either harmonizes every story ever told or renders the lot of them puerile.
Campbell’s hero with a thousand faces is most evident in the novella, a medium direct in its narrative and fortified in its content. Sara M. Harvey tacitly embraces this necessity in an unabashed manner in The Convent of the Pure, rendering characters as naked embodiments of archetypes from well-known myths and literature.
The protagonist Portia is Hercules punished for her bastard ancestry and transgressions against her love; she is also Jesus, a reborn savior who frees the innocent from limbo; she is also Catherine Linton, a pawn in schemes of others who realizes the happiness lost to her forbearers.
The sidekick Imogen is the phoenix who sacrifices herself only to be reborn again and again; she is also Lazarus, whose life is restored through trust in a savior; she is also Dimmesdale, a prisoner of her own guilt whose love supersedes her social duties.
The antagonist Nigel is Sisyphus, a prodigy whose ambition results in torment; he is also Lucifer the angel who dares to build his throne higher than the clouds; he is also Faust, the wit who gets more than he bargained for.
These archetypes are a compass within The Convent of the Pure. Harvey paints a rich, immersive world through Portia’s perspective, rich in gothic and fantastical imagery, but offers little in the way of explanation. While most of the mechanics of this world are intuitive (think “magical realism”), some ideas, beings, and actions are taken for granted. The clear character archetypes help the reader contextualize the actions within the plot as they reveal themselves. There are a few flashbacks scenes that reveal backstory, but their impact on the tension and mood of the story outweighs their interruption of linear plot.
There’s a strong sexual undertone to the story—it’s practically an overtone—that’s somewhat distracting, but also quite titillating. While nearly ubiquitous, it’s fairly tame, about PG-13, unless you happen to find lesbians to be a highly contentious issue. Let’s stay away from the Freudian interpretation of the scalpel, crossbow, body carvings, medallions, red and silver hair imagery, shall we?
While Harvey’s treatment of imagery is a tad heavy-handed, her language and word choice are impeccable. Most fantasy writers who employ a “realistic” style shun adjectives, but Harvey uses them to great affect without over-saturating the writing. The Convent of the Pure reads lightly and unencumbered, with vivid scenes and images as signposts along the way.
The hero is called to action, has initial success, sees the undefeatable monster and faces a setback, gets help and defeats the monster, and then returns to the people. Yes, the story is familiar, but it’s also well-written, and perhaps most importantly, it’s fun.