Catherynne Valente is an author on the rise, entrancing readers with her luscious, dreamlike prose and her exquisite explorations into magical realms. Even her children's stories are like little gold-rimmed gems.
"Myths of Origin: Four Short Novels" brings together four novellas written over the years, from her debut novella "The Labyrinth" to the recent story "Under in the Mere." They're beautifully-written, swimming in exquisite words and images -- and the main problem is that it's often hard to extract a true narrative from it.
"The Labyrinth" is the tale of the Walker, the Seeker-After, a woman who ate the compass rose. She wanders through the timeless, endless Roads of the Labyrinth, where she finds a Hare, a figure garbed in opals, a Crocodile, a Mirror, an erudite Lobster and his keys, and countless other strange wonders. Will she ever find the center?
"Yume No Hon: The Book of Dreams" switches the focus from a mystical world to ancient Japan. The story centers on Ayako, a woman who lost her village long ago, and now lives in a pagoda on the side of a Mountain. Nearby villagers believe her to be a spirit, and bring offerings to her -- but the answer of what Ayako is connects to a vast expanse of goddesses.
"The Grass-Cutting Sword" is another strange, beautiful tale based in Japanese folklore. The tale is partly about the thunder god Susanoo, who is sent to earth in human form by his sister Amaterasu. As he struggles to defeat the eight-headed monster Yamata-no-Orochi, Valente explores the perspective of the Orochi's multiple heads ("I am Eight. We are Eight") and the maidens sacrificed to him.
And finally there is "Under in the Mere," which reimagines Arthurian legends just as adeptly. It follows the perspectives of various characters from Arthurian legend -- the Lady of the Lake; Sir Kay and his thoughts of his brother; the Green Knight; the dancing, dreaming Sir Dagonet; Lancelot and the two women he loved; Morgan le Fay bringing her brother to Avalon; Galahad in a modern world, and others.
WARNING: These books are not easy read. All four are awash in windswept, jewel-toned words that slowly drown you in their beauty, and they often don't have straightforward narratives. "The Labyrinth" is particularly hard to read -- it's a very experimental novel, like someone took a few dozen lush poems and stretched them into prose.
The following three novellas have more defined stories, but they still aren't for people who like nice, defined beginning-middle-end stories. These are for people who like to sink into decadently luscious, scented prose like a luxurious bath, surrounded by flowers, talking animals, mystical dream-lands and dusty jewels. Valente's prose is almost too sensual to stand at times.
"Myths of Origin: Four Short Novels" drowns you in lovely words and eerie, hallucinatory dreams -- just don't expect a story that won't befuddle you.