Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Series Review: "The Orphan's Tales" by Catherynne M. Valente

The first half of The Orphan's Tales,
subtitled "In The Night Garden"
In the gardens of his father's palace, a lonely prince discovers an orphan girl whose eyelids are dyed black with the density of mystic writing upon them. One by one, she tells him the stories written there. She begins with a Prince much like her listener, one whose youthful adventure ends--and begins--when he kills a goose, only to learn that it was the transformed daughter of a barbarian Witch.

The wrathful Witch accuses the Prince with the secret history of her people, killed by his own father. Her tale winds back through generations, to the realm of the Stars, and then finds its way back to the Prince's own beautiful mother. Stricken by his father's sins, the Prince sets off on a quest to make amends and revive the dead goose-girl. 

Soon his own quest is entangled with a score of others: of astrologer bears from the frozen North turned human and feeble, of the vengeance taken for the murdered Snake Star, of the tree that grew ships for fruit, of the saint who nursed the last griffin ever hatched. There is always another story, another legend, another thrilling tale. With each story told, another line of text disappears from the orphan's eyelids.

  5 out of 5 stars
(grump + breakdown below the cut)

Here goes one of my very rare five-star reviews! Dear reader, I love fairy tales. I decorate with illustrations from famous ones. I read retellings of them. Sometimes I write them myself. But what I love even more than fairy tales are fairy tale deconstructions. In The Orphan's Tales, Catherynne Valente gives me both--one hundred percent original, and one hundred percent enchanting.

The books read like these dolls, if
one of them were actually a bear
and the smallest doll is you.
Or a Star. Or both.
The Orphan's Tales take their their shape from the One Thousand And One Arabian Nights, with stories set within stories like onions, ogres, or matryoshka dolls. They borrow some inspiration from the Arabian Nights as well, but also from European fairy tale traditions and tribal legends from across the world. Valente has a unique take on all of these, though it takes a little time for all the stories to fit together well. At times the seam between cultural origins shows more plainly than at others.

The tales are published in two volumes, separately titled In The Night Garden and In The Cities Of Coin And Spice. They are roughly divided by four 'sets' of stories, but there is a single overarching story being told in the background, growing clearer as it goes: the story which will eventually lead back to the orphan with a thousand tales written on her skin.
 "You always come to the window, you come to find me and carry me away--that is not what girls are supposed to do. It is what the Princes do in all the stories."
"This is not that kind of story."
This little exchange could stand for the byline of the entire work. "This is not that kind of story!" These are more than old fairy tales with a modern coat of paint; these are more than predictable inversions where damsels rescue princes (even if, stripped of context, the passage I just quoted seems to imply this.) Many of the tales are about those who, for whatever reason, cannot be rescued at all. Because the Stars are dead, because Quests are for humans, because you are too late. Sometimes the forces massed against you are too great. Sometimes the transformed maiden will only become more beastly as time goes on. Sometimes the race of Griffins will be hunted to death.

But defeat is not always the end of your story. Sometimes it is simply going in a different direction than you intended.

Everyone gets a voice in these stories, heroes and villains alike. Valente does not discriminate. Maidens and monsters, saints and necromancers--all speak in turn. We cannot resolve the quest of the goose-killing Prince until we hear from the King whom he means to slay, who does not consider himself inexcusably wicked.

But granting a voice is not the same as granting justification. In one of my favorite passages of the book, a character expresses great sympathy for an evildoer after hearing her story of woe, but maintains that her reign of terror must end.
"It is easy to forgive beautiful women, especially when they lay a sorrowful tale before you like a sugar-dusted meal. It does not mean they deserve forgiveness."
A first-time reader picking up In The Night Garden will find the first third or so to be fun, but not riveting. Then the book finds its stride. Soon it just soars. The later stories refer back to the earlier ones, because this rich and scattered world is more tightly woven together than the tellers themselves realize. We track the Witch and the Wizard (for there's really just one, isn't there?) throughout ages and across distant lands. The old skin-peddler wreaks havoc in half a dozen ways; the Stars continue to long for the sky and to fear death. It's a delicious moment when all the different half-finished story ends knot together.

In the later stories, Valente also begins to drop in in sly remarks about fairytale tropes, which would be delightful to read even without the stories that frame them. Some of my favorite one-liners:
  • It seemed clear to me long ago that it was better to be a wizard than not to be one.
  • Never assume that a woman is wicked simply because she is ugly and behaved unfavorably towards you. 
  • All stepmothers are witches. It is their compensation for remaining forever an intruder in another woman's house.
  • It is rather rude to expect magic, prophecy, and interpretation.
Oh, and then there's the magnificent legend about maidens being the larval forms of dragons.
Did you never wonder why the old books are so full of dragons chasing after maidens? The serpents think the girls are orphans, and long to get them away in a lair so that they may grow up strong and tall.
Sharp-eyed readers may find one direct quote from The Princess Bride and another from The Lion King, but they're fairly subtle.

Certain common threads run through the stories, no matter how different their subject matter. Many characters say, reflecting on their misguided heroics, "As you can see, I was very stupid then" or "I was very young." Many stories hit their turning point (as traditional fairytales do) when someone decides that the rules do not apply to them--that their desire to have, to touch, to see or to do [_____] outweighs the reasons that having, touching, seeing, or doing [____] is forbidden. But there are always consequences for that transgression. To quote the meme, "what has been seen cannot be unseen." (Or undone, or untouched, or un... had?)

The second half of The Orphan's Tales,
subtitled "In The Cities Of Coin And Spice"
(and the fact that the cover designs don't
coordinate drives me up the wall)
The heaviness of that axiom is lightened by the beautiful current of inspiration and love that also weaves through the tales. Most of the quests are fueled by love, hero-worship, or vengeance for some hurt done to someone or something beloved to the quest-taker.
"I wish that I were as brave and bright as you, that I could go to such a place, and meet such folk, and know about such things."

Sigrid frowned, her curly hair flattened against her broad forehead by the damp. "That's funny, you know. I spent most of my time in Al-a-Nur wishing I were as brave and bright as the Saint. We all have someone we think shines so much more than we do that we are not even a moon to their sun, but a little dead rock floating in space next to their gold and their blaze."
Valente has a great gift with language. One of my favorite descriptions is of a big hulking man "who looked as though some giant had simply dropped an armful of limbs into a heap." That's great. I love it.

Every now and then, though, I get the impression that Valente is playing Exotic Association Bingo. For instance, the orphan storyteller's eyelids float "like black lilies in the paleness of her face"--that's a wonderful, vivid image. That would have been enough. But Valente follows it up with "Owls sang in low gleaming strands, resting in black branches, veiled in the violet breath of jacaranda flowers. The wind rustled her hair like petals on a lake [and] the stars overhead burned like court candles," with the moon "full as a sail, riding softly through the rolling blue clouds, cutting through their foamy sapphirine flesh with a glowing prow"... I have another six metaphors I could quote here, all from one bloated, purple paragraph. A little imagery goes a long way. In places like this, the stories limp under the weight of metaphors heaped upon them. Over time, though, the narration becomes more graceful.

There is also an unfortunate tinge of Orientalism in the books. For all that the inspiration is drawn from all corners of our own globe--and despite the specifically Middle Eastern atmosphere invoked by the central narrative--I had a hard time finding a character who wasn't white-skinned and blonde. They do exist, but they're hard to find. Herein lies the danger in using the framework of the Arabian Nights to revisit classic European folklore tropes. When telling tales about fox spirits, djinn, and arctic bears, it shouldn't be so much to ask for characters with a little more melanin in their skin. On a better note, Valente does include several unambiguously queer women among her cast.

Make no mistake, dear reader--I absolutely do recommend these books. I absolutely do not recommend them for children. The Orphan's Tales contain scenes of gruesome violence (the cutting out of eyes and tongues happens a lot). There are heavy hints of sexual assault in certain stories, such as those of the Huldra, the Selkie, and Magadin. Overall, they have far more general unpleasantness than most younger readers would be able to stomach. This is not to say that this is a bleak, depressing set of stories! The overall arc is very positive. It just goes through some grim places along the way.

Taken together, In The Night Garden and In The Cities Of Coin And Spice are two of my favorite new books. They well deserve the Mythopoeic Award, which Valente won in 2008. I highly recommend them to anyone who likes fairy tales and hungers for a new adventure, as well as to people who love rich worlds and puzzle boxes. Readers will walk away with scraps of legend fluttering around in the winds of their imagination for months and years to come.

I'll leave you  all with one final bit of silliness from the first book. I'd be very grateful if someone could check the math on this, by the way.
"Now," I began, "why do you want to kill Beast? He's not borrowed your sword and forgotten to return it, he's not spoiled your favorite sedan chair, he's not bothered you at all!"
"I am a Prince," he replied, being rather dense. "It is the function of a Prince--value A--to kill monsters--value B--for the purpose of establishing order--value C--and maintaining a steady supply of maidens--value D. If one inserts the derivative of value A (Prince) into the equation y equals BC plus CD squared, and set its equal to zero, giving the apex of the parabola, namely, the point of intersection between A (Prince) and B (Monster), one determines value E--a stable kingdom. It is all very complicated, and if you have a chart handy I can graph it for you."
[...]"Your Formula must result in a great deal of fighting," I mused.
"Oh, yes, when applied correctly mighty and noble battles result! Of course I always win--the value of Prince X is a constant. It cannot be less than that of Monster Y--this is the Moral Superiority Hypothesis made famous five hundred years ago by my ancestor Ethelred, the Mathematician-King. We have never seen his equal, in all these centuries."
"Of that I have no doubt."
Complexity of Writing: 5/5
Quality of Writing: 5/5
Strength of Characterization: 4/5
Logic of Plot Development: 4/5
Evocation of Setting: 4/5
Effectiveness of Pacing: 3/5
Resolution of Conflict: 4/5
Emotional Engagement: 4/5
Mental Engagement: 4/5
Bechdel Test: yes
Diverse Cast: sort of
Content Warning: violence, gore, implied sexual assault

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