Wednesday, June 16, 2010

The Orphan's Tales - In the Night Garden - Catherynne Valente

2006; 483 pages. Genre : Fantasy Mythpunk (huh?). Awards : 2008 Mythopoeic Award - Adult Literature; nominated for the 2006 James Tiptree Jr. Award; nominated for the 2007 World Fantasy Award. New author?: Yes. Overall Rating : 8½*/10.
In the Sultan's garden, a quiet little girl lives a lonely existence. Everyone thinks she's a demon due to her eyelids being inked black with a zillion tiny letters. The Sultan's young son befriends her and in exchange for bringing her food, she gives him the only thing she's has - the tales that are minutely inscribed on her eyelids. Alas, the prince's older sister is determined to keep the two youngsters apart. But the girl's tales utterly captivate the boy, and he has to find ways to continue seeing her.
What's To Like...
This is a wonderfully-written book, rich in imagery and vocabulary. Although patterned after 1001 Arabian Nights, Valente invents a whole new mythical world, complete with star-gods, creation myths, and a menagerie of beasts - cyclops and monopods, griffins and leucrottas, wizards and papesses, shape-shifting bears and herons. And scattered throughout are marvelous drawings by Michael Wm. Kaluta.
But it is the stories themselves that take center-stage. They are intricate, many-faceted, and interwoven. The Orphan's Tales is a duology, and both volumes in turn have two books-within-a-book, each with its own self-contained labyrinth of tales.
That interweaving can get confusing. A particular narrator may tell two tales in a row, then disappear while a tangential storyline (or several) is played out. When the first narrator finally reappears, I'd have to backtrack through the book to figure out who she was.
There are some loose ends, particularly as to the princeling and the girl with the inked eyelids. I presume these are taken care of in the next book, titled The Orphan's Tales : In The Cities of Coin and Spice.
Kewl New Words...
Lots of them. Kohl : a cosmetic preparation used in the Middle East to darken the rims of the eyelids. Postulant : a candidate for admission into a religious order. Gloam : twilight. Here, "my body was changed, converted into its charcoal and gloam." Poultice : a soft, moist mass applied to a sore or inflamed part of the body. Amira : a princess. Doulios : a slave; a servant (Greek). Dotard : (adj.) foolish; doddering. Oligarch : a supporter of a form of government in which power rests with a small segment of society. Anchorite : a person who has gone into seclusion for religious reasons. Selkie : a mythical creature who has the form of a seal, but who can also assume human shape. Liminal : relating to the threshold between two different (spiritual) planes.
Once there was a child whose face was like the new moon shining on cypress trees and the feathers of waterbirds. She was a strange child, full of secrets. She would sit alone in the great Palace Garden on winter nights, pressing her hands into the snow and watching it melt under her heat. She wore a crown of garlic greens and wisteria; she drank from the silver fountains studded with lapiz; she ate cold pears under a canopy of pines on rainy afternoons. (opening paragraph. wow.)
"No, no, meat does not offend us; we simply choose to eschew it. It appeals to the highest nature of the self to put aside food which once lived - I do not consider myself food, why should I ask all other creatures to consider themselves so?" (pg. 241)
Sigrid looked as though she had been slapped. "I have searched my life over for you, for the Saint of the Griffins, of the Boiling Sea, of the Red Ship. I have never tried to repeat your miracles. I have performed my own. I have only tried to be like you in spirit, to be brave, and noble, and to find my place in the world. To find you."
The saint leaned in close to Sigrid, her face as round and ruddy as the day she vanished, and laid one finger aside her nose, her mouth spreading into a conspiratorial smile.
"Gods are always a disappointment," she clucked. (pg. 469)
"Never put your faith in a Prince. When you require a miracle, trust in a Witch." (pg. 134)
Valente's challenge : to write an epic adventure (with scads of sub-adventures) in a Chaucerian tale-telling style. She succeeds charmingly. There is humor, action, twists, and ethical dilemmas. Both "sub-books" are entertaining, but I liked the second one better, which has a more serious uber-theme of gods and religion. Sub-book One is more of a straight adventure story.
One last thing. You will find that for the most part, female heroes and adventurers predominate here. Yet it isn't overbearing and makes for a nice switch. Highly recommended, except for chauvinists. 8½ stars.


Steven R. Harbin aka coachhollywood67 said...

This one sounds very interesting, I'll definitely check it out.

Hamilcar Barca said...

I couldn't find it at Borders or my used-book store. But my local library had a bunch of books by Valente.

The worst I can say is that it was a slow read for me.