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Monday, May 14, 2007

“The Orphan’s Tales: In The Night Garden” by Catherynne M. Valente

Official Catherynne M. Valente Website
Official Orphan’s Tales Website
Buy “The Orphan’s Tales: In The Night GardenHERE
Read an excerpt HERE

Until a few months ago, I had never heard of Catherynne M. Valente, but thanks to Jay Tomio of The Bodhisattva,, etc., not only was I introduced to the author, but I became intrigued enough to pick up her latest novel “The Orphan’s Tales: In The Night Garden” (2006). Further research shows that Ms. Valente has an education in Classical Studies (emphasis in Ancient Greek Linguistics); poetry & short fiction published in various online/print magazines, journals & anthologies; and a bibliography comprised of a chapbook “Music of a Proto-Suicide” (2004), three poetry collections (Apocrypha, Oracles: A Pilgrimage, The Descent of Inanna), and four novels (The Labyrinth, Yume no Hon: The Book of Dreams, The Grass-Cutting Sword) including “The Orphan’s Tales: In The Night Garden”, winner of the 2006 Tiptree Award and illustrated by artist Michael Kaluta (Lucifer, The Books of Magic, Vampirella, Metropolis).

Described as “A Book of Wonders for Grown-Up Readers” and “the Arabian Nights for our time”, I guess I was expecting to be swept away much like I was when reading such classics as Grimms’ Fairy Tales (the non-Disney versions of Cinderella, Little Red Riding Hood, Sleeping Beauty, etc.), Homer’sIliad” & the “Odyssey”, and the aforementioned “Arabian Nights”, most notably such favorites as Aladdin, The Seven Voyages of Sinbad the Sailor and Ali Baba & the Forty Thieves. In this regard, I was a little disappointed since “The Orphan’s Tales” didn’t exactly enchant me in the way I expected, since I felt that
none of the individual stories came that close to measuring up to the timelessness of any of the aforesaid classics. However, I digress.

Before I get into all of that, let’s look at the actual book first. Structure-wise, “The Orphan’s Tales” is setup somewhat like “Arabian Nights” in that there is one primary storyteller, much like Princess Scheherazade of the 1001 Nights, who goes on to recite numerous fairy tales for her audience. In “The Orphan’s Tales”, the narrator is a nameless girl of noble descent who is banished to the Garden because of a mysterious birthmark around her eyes & eyelids. Other than that, we’re not really told much more of the girl or the world that she inhabits, except that there is a Sultan and a Palace. From the Palace emerges a curious boy, who befriends the girl, and learns the truth behind the birthmarks. From there, the novel follows three different storylines, the tales that the girl relates to the boy, which are divided into two books (Book of the Steppe, Book of the Sea), and their adventures In the Garden that includes the boy’s ‘wicked’ sister Dinarzad who tries to keep the two separated. Of course, the heart of the entire book are the stories told by the girl and this is where the “The Orphan’s Tales” really shines.

Packaged as fables or myths, the individual tales are 3-4 pages long – sometimes more, sometimes less – that usually lead into tales told by another storyteller, which results in further tales and so on. On their own, I didn’t really think any of the tales were all that remarkable aside from a few, since most of them are derived from recognizable folklore – I even saw Bible references – though Ms. Valente does a fabulous job of taking the proverbial and putting her own unique spin on things, keeping the stories fresh & invigorating. What really elevates the storytelling though is the way all of the different tales interconnect with one another, which is unlike the “Arabian Nights” where the stories only build on top of each other. For instance, in the Book of the Steppe, we have a wide variety of tales chronicling princes, witches, wizards, kings, quests, star gods, shape-changing and more. At first, I wasn’t really too impressed with any of the stories that were being told, and I wasn’t sure in what direction Ms. Valente was heading since they weren't exactly morality lessons,
but when I reached the end of the Book of the Steppe, I could only marvel at how all of the individual tales fit together to create one beautifully cohesive epic. Personally, I enjoyed Book of the Sea even more. For one, where Book of the Steppe was more childlike in presentation, Book of the Sea is a darker, more grown-up world that deals with religious politics, papacies, necromancers, pirates, saints, griffins, djinns, satyrs, a different take on Cyclops & mermaids, etc. On top of that, not only do we get to see how all of these various pieces connect with one another, but we also get to see how they correlate with certain events & characters from the previous tales found in the Book of the Steppe. By the time you finish “The Orphan’s Tales: In The Night Garden”, it’s really impressive to see how everything is related to one another in the larger scope of things, and it’s easy to speculate how other storylines might be connected and where the girl & the boy fit in with all of this. So, even though the overall story remains unfinished – the book is part one of a duology – “The Orphan’s Tales” is one of those rare books that keeps your imagination running long after you’ve completed the novel.

Going back to my earlier statements, I claimed that “The Orphan’s Tales” lacks the timelessness of “Grimms’ Fairy Tales”, the “Iliad/Odyssey” & the “Arabian Nights”, and I stick by that opinion. That’s not to say “The Orphan’s Tales” isn’t an accessible, charming & memorable book that has the potential to become a classic, because it is, and it has all the makings of a pivotal work of literature, especially once the duology is completed. I just think that it’s not so much the story (or stories) that makes the book stand out, or that readers will remember it for,
but the manner in which the story is told. In this area, Ms. Valente excels, utilizing her experience in language and poetry to elegantly capture the magic & emotion of the tales being crafted, while keeping the reader constantly guessing at how the puzzle pieces fit together. As to who will enjoy “The Orphan’s Tales”? Well, anyone who is a fan of the abovementioned or likes imaginative, entertaining, well-written fables should appreciate the novel. That includes young readers and adults alike. After all, while the book possesses darker elements like violence & sexuality, it’s very subtle, and I would have no problem recommending it to a preteen. In the end, Catherynne M. Valente’sThe Orphan’s Tales: In The Night Garden” is a fascinating book that I believe any true lover of fantasy would cherish, and I’m sure I’m not the only one who is eagerly anticipating the second part of the duology, “The Orphan’s Tales: In the Cities of Coin and Spice”, due out October 2007…


Anonymous said...

This one sounds interesting - I hadn't heard of Valente prior to this, but I'll be adding this one to my list of books to acquire.

I love the cover art.

(wandered over here from Neth Space)

Robert said...

Thanks for stopping by. I'm glad you liked the review and hope you enjoy the book :)


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