You should order this book with all haste, because it is going to blow your mind. Habitation of the Blessed is based in the medieval legend of Prester John, at the time probably the biggest hoax around. The Emperor of Constantinople got a letter from Prester John, who claimed to have converted all manner of people in a strange land somewhere between what are now India and Pakistan, full of mythic creatures and strange people, and home to the Fountain of Youth. Medieval Europe took that stuff serious; for years, people went looking for the Kingdom, and never found it.
Valente's book tells the tale of this Kingdom, but not just from John's perspective: three interlocked tales introduce us to this mythic land, instead. John's voice is there, but so is that of Hagia, a blemmy - a race of headless people whose faces are in their chests - and of Imtithal, a panoti, whose ears are big enough to wrap her entire body, and whose species eats sound. Their tales are told in three fantastical books-within-the-book, all plucked from a tree which fruits with fully grown tomes, picked and read by Brother Hiob von Luzern, a priest-sojourner on a quest to look for Prester John five hundred years after the Letter.
As usual, Valente has created something strange and rich and lavish and wonderful with these interconnected stories, a device familiar to readers of The Orphan's Tales: In the Night Garden or the Hugo-nominated Palimpsest. John's own account of his "Coming to the Brink of the World, and What [He] Found There" is clearly the voice of an outsider, standing in stark contrast to the tales told by Hagia and Imtithal, to whom Pentexore is familiar and Constantinople undreamed of. John and Hagia's narratives treat directly the events of John's coming and their aftermath - although Hagia's tale does not limit itself to his exploits, and John tells us not just of Pentexore-that-was but Constantinople-that-was, a city of wars and mosaics and apricot-sellers and death to wipe out heresies that read like split hairs - while Imtithal's portion seems at first unconnected, being a collection of the tales she told when she was nursemaid and storyteller to the huge-handed children of Queen Abir . . . the stories which are, we find, as intimately a part of the cultural heritage of Pentexore as the tales of the scripture and the saints are to John's own, limited understanding of what he finds there.
In this fabulous land, Valente's rich prose shines with heretofore unsurpassed brilliance as she describes the fantastical sights of Pentexore, its capital city al-Qasr, and its outlying lands - the pygmies ever warring with the Crane-people, the gryphons, the lamia, the panotii and astomii and amycytrae with their huge ears and noses and mouths, and peoples stranger still. Longtime readers will not be surprised that these strange and perhaps grotesque medieval imaginings are, in Valente's narrative, some of the most compelling and sympathetic characters we meet. Her Prester John is as one might imagine the man would be from his Letter - arrogant, self-satisfied, hell-bent on conversion and domination, unable to fully grasp that the denizens of Pentexore are as fully people as the warring peoples of Constantinople from whom he fled, possessed perhaps of a good heart, but one covered over with assumptions and prejudices and dogmatic pronouncements. It is Hagia, the blemmy, who shows us the best and worst of John - and reminds us that, however much he might have thought so, this story is not his alone to tell, this country not his to claim, that his ideas of beauty and correctness and godliness are parasitic transplants in a land that had its own flourishing growths long before he crossed the sea and the desert, himself and the things he brought with him destined to irreversibly change that timeless place.
This is not to say that the novel leaves us no room to sympathize with John, who loved art in the days when the arguments over art in Constantinople were waged with weapons and rife with bloodshed, who in his long terror on the Rimal, the sea of stones, found room to venerate not just the churches and the saints of Byzantium and the cross he made from what little he had, but the scribes and the fish-sellers and a beautiful black-haired man, and the taste of quince. And Hiob, too - for all his old man's grumbling, his fear of heresy, his too-human complaints and prejudices and pride and petty greeds, he shines through as a lover of books, a man who would have liked to be a poet if he were not a priest, and by the end of the book I had found it in my heart to love him, to love them both despite their sins, real and imagined and overly-bemoaned in their narratives.
Let us not, however, forget Hagia and Imtithal, whose stories are even more vital than those of these human men to the tale which unfolds. Imtithal, storyteller to the Queen's children, who are themselves some of the most delightful and difficult characters in Habitation, the three cametenna children with their enormous hands. I have known, and been, these children - children who love stories of how things came to be, and stories of love gone wrong, and children who are satisfied with nothing, who all have to be led down the path that will help them become good people by their storytelling nurse. It is Imtithal and Hagia who tell us the truth of Pentexore as known by those to whom it is all they have ever known - the Abir, which keeps the timelessness of Pentexore from becoming an eternal drudgery of sameness, the al-Qasr, the market in which all manner of rich and impossible things are bought and sold, the Ship of Bones that bore the first peoples to Pentexore, the Octopuses which are so fierce, of the Wall and Gog and Magog ravening behind it, and the coming of John, with all his flaws, to their land and to Hagia's life.
The temptation to share every dear and beautiful secret this novel holds for you is palpable, but I'll refrain. This is, with all respect to everyone else who I have read and loved, the best book I have read this year. The wealth of Classics knowledge that Valente brings to this retelling makes what might otherwise have been confusing medieval minutiae about the Nestorian heresy and the nature of Christ both lovely and accessible. The way in which she turns this traditional tale on its head to examine monstrosity and difference and otherness while centering the voices of the allegedly monstrous and different and other is a constant motif in her work, but here it is more deft than ever before. And how she simultaneously neither stints the flaws of the legendary John nor makes him a cardboard villain, and her Hagia - oh Hagia - I am overcome, I am without any more words. All of the best books there are deal with love and loss and the remoteness of the past and the pain of growth and what it means to be a person, and this is the best of those that I have ever known.
"That which is beloved is the whole of creation." Just as with Palimpsest, I could spend several lifetimes in this imagined creation and not lose my love for it. Read The Habitation of the Blessed, and see what it is you find inside, and if you do not pine for the next installment of A Dirge for Prester John, I will be terribly surprised.