Title: The Orphan’s Tales: In the Night Garden and The Orphan’s Tales: In the Cities of Coin and Spice
Author: Catherynne M Valente
Year of Publication: 2006 / 2007
Length: 483 / 516
New or Re-Read?: Re-Read
Rating: 5 stars
It’s probably becoming apparent that I’ve turned into a ridiculous Catherynne Valente fangirl. I feel no shame about this whatsoever.
These were actually the first Valentes I read, back a few years ago, and they were a lovely place to start. I’m reviewing the two books together because it really is all one story — but it’s also a thousand stories. Valente has given us a new Scheherazade, a girl with stories etched indelibly on her eyelids. Taken for a demon by the Sultan and his kin, the girl is abandoned in the garden and grows up half-wild and definitely a little eldritch. She reads the stories off of reflections, one eye at a time, and for years has nothing but them and the garden itself for company — until the day a little princeling encounters her and is brave enough to speak to her. Their unlikely friendship grows and coils around the stories she tells him.
And I sort of don’t even know where to begin. I could never recap everything that happens in the girl’s tales. It’s the story of how the stars fell from the heavens, and some got murdered, and one gets revenge. It’s the story of a girl who was a goose. It’s the story of a fox-woman who captains a ship of monsters. It’s the story of a three-breasted saint. It’s the story of how cities can die and mutate into something else. It’s the story of a wizard’s evil deeds. It’s the story of a phoenix and his feathers.
I’ve described Valente before as steeped in mythos, and it shows here more clearly than in anything else of hers I’ve read. None of these stories are retellings of things you know; do not look here for Snow White or Aladdin or Rama. But the flavours are there. Indian and Arabian, Japanese and Russian, Finnish and German, African and Greek — layers on layers of cultural seasoning, mingling freely with each other. There is a familiarity even as everything is new and wonderful; these stories would fit in perfectly well among their elder siblings that have been told and retold for centuries. And like the folktales of old, they don’t pull their punches. These are stories with blood and bone at their core, and I adore them for it.
The language is poetic, and I’ve seen some reviews posit that as a negative. I don’t count it so at all. Valente’s words get into my head, and to me, that’s always the sign of a great writer — if my thought patterns start taking on characteristics of what I’ve read. You have to approach this book as the prince does — let the stories wash over you, don’t try too hard to connect the threads. Don’t worry; they’ll get there on their own. I love that at one point the prince reflects on how the earliest tales he heard already seem to be fading from his memory, that they will need revisiting, someday, if he’s to remember them. It does happen. There are so many intertwining tales that it can seem like ages since you read the first one, even if it’s only been a day — but I’m okay with that. It doesn’t trouble me in the least. The plotline isn’t the point. This is kaleidoscopic storytelling, where the patterns and the movement matter much more than any individual shape.
The frame narrative weaves through the girl’s stories, breaking back in every so often. The little prince returns again and again, wanting to hear more of the girl’s stories, but is often thwarted by his sister Dinarzad. In the first book, she appears nothing but a spiteful obstacle, but in the second, we learn more about the trials she faces, the trouble her brother’s actions cause for her, and she becomes much more sympathetic. She fears and hates the girl in the garden, but she becomes entrapped by the stories, too, enchanted by the possibilities plaited into them, a stark contrast to the lack of control she has over her own life. Dinarzad comes to provide a nice counterpoint — and a reminder of what power stories can have.
There’s also something wonderfully subversive in Valente’s writing. The strongest and most sympathetic characters are women and beasts, not men and boys. Heroes strike out on quests and find the situation to be far more complicated than “man-slays-beast”. She doesn’t beat you over the head with it, but the stories are definitely what I would qualify as feminist. I love that. I’ve always thought that if you write a story to make a point, it’s going to fall flat. That doesn’t make good fiction. But if you just tell the story and it happens to have that message nestled within it, then it succeeds.
I love these books and can’t recommend them highly enough. I don’t know if I’d consider them the best starting place for Valente, even though they were the first books of hers I read — the Fairyland novels might be an introduction with lower time and brainpower investment. But these, I think, really show her at her best.