The Orphan's Tales: In the Night Garden and The Orphan's Tales: In the Cities of Coin and Spice, by Catherynne M. Valente, are a complete sequence of astonishingly immersive and transformative fairy tales, nested within and wound into each other to create a complete mythology and an overall narrative. I read them now because the second volume is eligible for a Hugo nomination, and unless I read an improbable number of mind-blowing books between now and the end of the month, it's going on my ballot.
In the gardens of a Sultan lives a girl who has been shunned since infanthood because her eyes are surrounded by a dark birthmark. One day, one of the Sultan's sons seeks her out and asks her about the mark. She tells him,
"On an evening when I was a very small child an old woman came to the great silver gate, and twisting her hands among the rose-roots told me this: I was not born with this mark. A spirit came into my cradle on the seventh day of the seventh month of my life, and while my mother slept in her snow-white bed, the spirit touched my face, and left there many tales and spells, like the tattoos of sailors. The verses and songs were so great in number and so closely written that they appeared as one long, unbroken streak of indigo on my eyelids. But they are the words of the river and the marsh, the lake and the delta. They comprise a great magic, and when the tales are all read out, and heard end to shining end, to the last syllable, the spirit will return and judge me. After she vanished into the blue-faced night, I spent each day hidden in a thicket of jasmine and oleander, trying to read what I could in my bronze mirror. But it is difficult, I must read them backwards, and I can only read one eye at a time." She stopped, and the last was no louder than a spider weaving its opaline threads.
"And there is no one to listen."
Fascinated, the boy asks her to tell him one of the tales . . . and we're off. A restless prince kills a goose and is caught by a witch, who promises to make him understand what he has done by telling him of her life, which includes the story her grandmother told her, and the story her grandmother was told, and . . .
The series is structured as four books, collected into two volumes for publication purposes. Sometime during the first book, I surfaced and found myself thinking in terms of falling down rabbit holes or dazzling kaleidoscopes—and then immediately rejected them, because to my surprise, I was having no trouble remembering who was speaking, what their relationship was to the broader tale, and what cross-connections were being created. Other people have experienced the text differently, of course, from making no effort to keep track of the interrelationships to purposefully cataloguing them all, or at least wanting to [*].
[*] A substantial effort toward this end has been made over at the Feminist SF Wiki, all of which is deeply spoilery.
My favorite reading experience of the four books was the first, precisely because of the interrelationships: I reveled in the feeling that a web was being created in my mind, with every new tale lighting up a new point or illuminating a connection between existing points. The other three books felt more linear, for though they also link back to past tales, the density of these links is less because so much of the groundwork was laid in the first book. On the other hand, if one finds the first book strenuous, I'd recommend at least trying the other book in the volume to see if it is easier going.
What of the content of these books? Well, they're fairy tales, of something like the kind found in the Datlow-Windling anthologies of fairy tales for adults; but by virtue of their number, they are far more diverse and complex. The work shuffles a whole deck of fairy-tale roles and deals them out over and over again: witch, princess, woman in a tower, mother, monster, wizard, brother, king . . . each time taking a look at the possible person and reality behind the role. Other themes that I particularly noticed were bodies, their variants, transformations, and mutability; ways of relating to power; and the birth and death of cities, of which I was especially struck by the one at the start of the third book. (The first volume received a Tiptree Award, which was well-deserved, as the tales are particularly interested in and relevant to ideas of gender.)
The cumulative effect of these many tales is the creation of a complete underlying mythology and a wide portrait of a world. More, it's one drawn from many different cultures, without the wholesale importation of any. Occasionally the resulting juxapositions were slightly jarring, but I prefer the diversity of sources and of characters to the alternatives. Lately I've been craving, above almost all else, something different in my fantasy reading; and this is very far from being Extruded Fantasy Product and fit the bill admirably.
These weren't perfect reads. Once or twice I felt the themes were more obvious than necessary, and I'm not satisfied with the final revelation. But they were richly imaginative reads, with more narrative momentum than I expected given the format and plenty of lingering wonders and marvels. Strongly recommended.
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