Saturday, October 9, 2010

The Orphan's Tales by Catherynne M. Valente

Secreted away in a garden, a lonely girl spins stories to warm a curious prince: peculiar feats and unspeakable fates that loop through each other and back again to meet in the tapestry of her voice. Inked on her eyelids, each twisting, tattooed tale is a piece in the puzzle of the girl's own hidden history. And what tales she tells! Tales of shape-shifting witches and wild horsewomen, heron kings and beast princesses, snake gods, dog monks, and living stars -- each story more strange and fantastic than the one that came before.

The Orphan’s Tales is seriously ambitious – ‘the Arabian Nights for our time’ according to the blurbs. The book combines myriad individual stories with an over-arching plot fit for an epic novel of the world’s creation, fallen stars, journeys across oceans and through dangerous cities, and one girl’s discovery of her true identity.

Not only does Catherynne Valente revel in great story-telling, she remakes ancient myths and fairy tales to express bold, modern ideas. This is a feminist re-imagining of the heroes, heroines and monsters we all grew up hearing and reading about, and Valente’s sympathies are always with the outcasts. To take a simple example, a maiden trapped in a tower with her abundant golden hair turns out to be dragon-winged and deer-legged. No Prince will rescue her, but a Witch finds her a perfect place in a pirate ship full of monsters.

The stories are nested one inside another, so a prince setting out on a quest will encounter an old woman who tells her tale, in which she encounters a wolf who tells hers and so on. Some stories fill just one chapter, others spill over into many. It’s a real feat of writing that the stories stay clear and memorable, but also that Valente maintains the tension and suspense while growing so many plots. Overall, I found the books beautiful, serious and enjoyable at once.

For me the first volume, In the Night Garden, was fresher and more exciting than the second, In the Cities of Coin and Spice, although the two connect well. My main problem with the second was that there were some very disturbing scenes of cruelty to children. Valente is drawing on a tradition of fairy stories dependent upon mistreated and abandoned orphans so I understand why she wrote these things, but they were hard to read. Also, I started to feel the lack of strong male characters in this book, but that’s a very minor complaint. The books are challenging, but they’re also very special, a unique voyage for the imagination.

1 comment:

  1. Interesting review. Would you mind if I quote briefly from your review on a website I'm working on? I will of course attribute to you and link back to this page.