on 8 December 2006
"Now this child had a strange and wonderful birthmark, in that her eyelids and the flesh around her eyes was stained a deep indigo-black, like china pots filled with ink."
Catherynne M Valente's latest novel begins in the vast garden of a Sultan's palace and with a girl who has been banished from the palace into the garden because of a peculiar marking: her eyelids and the skin around her eyes are stained black. When a plucky boy approaches her, she tells him that the markings are stories written in tiny handwriting; and at his request she begins to tell him the first story, from the crease of her left eyelid. These stories are the focus of the book, although there is an important subplot of the boy getting in trouble for his growing association with the girl.
The stories she tells have a fairytale, mythical quality about them; there are stories within stories within stories, weaving in and out of each other; and it is all told in Valente's flowing, beautiful prose. She takes some basic archetypes - the prince, the maiden and the witch, for instance - and turns them on their head in an oft-peculiar way, sometimes subtly and sometimes not, with ideas drawn from a wide spread of cultures and a fair few from the imagination-rich world inside her own head.
This is a dazzling, original, interesting book, and I recommend it to everyone who wants a taste of something fresh and fantastic.
on 9 September 2010
A young girl spends her days alone in a garden. She is outcast and ostracized from the people around her, because of strange black markings on her eyelids and around her eyes, believing her to be a demon-child. One day, a young prince wanders into her garden and befriends her; in return, she tells him the stories she has read from the inside of her eyelids.
Although I have never read The Arabian Nights, I hear The Orphan's Tales duology is of a similar structure; each volume is comprised of two main stories, each of which consists of a net of connecting stories. I had never read a book with this stories-within-stories structure -- at first I was left a little confused as to who was telling the story and whether each story connected to each other, but a couple of pages in and I came to love this structure. This book is full of amazing depth because of it; almost every character the reader is introduced to has their own story to tell and so you come to know each character on a personal level, which is rare among fantasy fiction. It is often the case for me that even in the best books, there are characters that bore me to death and I would happily skip through parts that focus on them; In The Night Garden is very different. I cared about most of these characters, I actually felt a sense of loss when some stories ended because I felt I needed to read more, I needed to know more about this well-written character.
It is a testament to Catherynne M. Valente's utterly amazing writing ability that there are almost no two-dimensional characters, they hardly ever fall into tropes of typical fantasy and almost all of them has an interesting characteristic or feature that conflicts with what you'd expect. Not only are these characters interesting and well-written, they are downright weird. From a surly barman who was formerly a white bear, to the sea captain with a fox's head only seen in water, to the dog-headed monks that refrain from eating meat... it's all weird. Shapeshifting princesses, a race that can live forever by inhabiting other bodies, young girls with three breasts; you name it and it's likely there. I am a newcomer to the new weird genre and I was never overwhelmed. The strangeness of the stories or the characters never fazes you, you are only left more and more interested.
Even more fantastic than the characterisation and plots... Valente's writing. Each line is like poetry. The novel is rich in vivid and wonderful descriptions, but never ever purple, never pointless and always adding something to each story. I am a quick reader but I spent a particularly long time on this book, just to appreciate every well-placed and beautiful phrase. It's a joy to read lines which may add nothing more than descriptions to the wonderful settings. I can easily say that Valente is my new favourite writer even if judged only on technique and her use of language, let alone what's actually involved in the novels, because her grasp of language is unmatched by any writers who belong to the new weird/fantasy/fairy tale genres.
Another point that must be mentioned... In The Night Garden involves a lot of female characters. Again, they never fall into stereotypes... as explained, even the most beautiful and kind characters has something you'd never expect, something that most writers would never dare to write, like the princess trapped into a tower hideously deformed by a wizard's experiments. And yet, they seem like real women. They are simply women who do their own things. Valente is one of the few writers I've seen who isn't afraid to twist stereotypes and break traditions. It's very refreshing.
It's dark, it's weird, it's imaginative, it's fantastic. If you like fantasy at all, read this book. If you like well-written weird stories, read this book. If you're dying for well-written female characters, read this book. If you like fairy tales, read this book. It's, quite simply, that good. This book is a hidden gem and Catherynne M. Valente is an underrated, talented addtion to the fantasy genre.
Buy it, read it, love it.
on 3 June 2016
This beautifully written, cleverly structured book of storytelling was, unfortunately, impossible to finish. Although described as high fantasy, the book is really a collection of fairy tales, with each thread of the narrative told by a different character. We meet a young girl who tells stories to a young boy, about a prince who meets a witch who tells a story about her grandmother, and sends the prince on a quest, where he meets a bartender who tells him a story about how he used to be a bear, and another about a beast, who tells a story about rescuing a princess with help from a witch. And so on. The stories all share the same mythic quality, they're very evocative and dream-like, but the structure is so convoluted that after reading half the book, I can't tell you the name of a single character.
And therein lies the problem, and the reason I didn't finish. As clever as the structure is, as beautiful the prose, layers upon layers of very short tales do not a compelling narrative make. As soon as I became invested in one character, off we went to learn the stories of another. I kept reading, hoping for hints that a payoff was coming. At about the halfway point, when I'd reached the fifth layer of storytelling, the book collapsed for me under the weight of its own cleverness. I realised I couldn't wait for a payoff, as I just didn't care what happens to the boy, the girl, the prince, the witch, the bear/bartender, the beast, the princess, the stepmother and all the rest of the characters whose names I can't recall.
I bought the book on the strength of its glowing reviews, and am disappointed that it didn't work for me. So I'm adding my voice to the small chorus of people who wanted to love this book, but bounced on The Orphan's Tales. If you're one of us, I'm here for you, friend. Don't feel bad. I did not get this book either.
on 20 July 2013
In years of reading being a fantasy reader; I can firmly say I've never found a book quite like this before. The Orphan's Tales: In the Night Garden is a remarkable piece of storytelling.
Undoubtedly influenced by the fantasy, horror and satirical stories in One Thousand And One Nights; the book's opening thread is of a supposed demonically possessed young girl living in a palace garden. Shunned and feared by nearly all around her, the nameless girl tells stories to an equally unnamed boy of the royal court. This allows a linear flow into tales that are vivid, elaborate depictions of magic, blood vengeance, quests, fabulous cities and an incredible range of mythical beings as well as princes, kings, witches, deities and more. There is a touch of a reminder of Italo Calvino's Invisible Cities, as well as Jorge Luis Borges' The Book of Imaginary Beings, for me.
What I love are the twists to the characters' stories as they appear, disappear and then are encountered again (akin to music where the refrain is heard once, vanishes, then returns to be touched on again, growing resonant with added details). Also, as another reviewer notes: there are wonderfully depicted female characters and, delightfully, they are all different with none being decoratively simplistic.
However, for all the wondrous prose, I do find some elements less satisfying. I like flashes of wit and humour in fantasy writing to add dimension to themes that can, sometimes, become portentous. There are a couple of moments where I smiled or had a quiet laugh (a questing Prince obsessed with formulas and theorems and Grog the Magyr lambasting the uselessness of mermaids), but for many of the stories it seemed absent or it was lost in my reading of it.
The structure of the storytelling can be discouraging at times. With so many characters across near fifty stories; it can be difficult to find an emotional connection instead of an intellectual one. It's easy to view some as just another link in a chain, where the fabulously outlandish becomes the everyday, rather than memorable individuals. The stand-out characters are in the stories of The Net-weaver, The Pale Girl and St. Sigrid. The characters' relationships to each other seemed to be far more understandable, and sympathetic, in terms of their motivations and actions. These later tales remain my favourites of the entire sequence.
The interior ink drawings by Michael Kaluta (an established and talented comic book artist and illustrator) may have been commissioned to play a similar role as in The Grimm Brothers' Illustrated Tales. It is unfortunate that some of the odd, repetitive, positioning and sizing in the text does not always enhance or complement.
For readers looking for a book that is a different take on classical stories, or as adult fantastic fiction, I'd recommend The Night Garden as more than worth the time to become absorbed in. I wouldn't strongly recommend it for people who want a more traditional, epic fantasy novel though.
on 24 November 2013
In a far off garden, cloistered away from the Sultan's harem lives a girl with exotic tales tattooed on her eyelids. No one is supposed to speak to her, but the young prince loves sneak away and listen to her stories. In the Night Garden is a compilation of those very same stories, as well as that of the lost girl and enraptured prince. I absolutely love this book (books really). I can't say that enough. If I hadn't wanted to be an author before reading it, I sure would have after. It grabbed my attention, held it, and then shook it for all it was worth. I wanted it to go on forever, to find one more amazing character or vivid local. This book is full of them. It's like literary velvet. The prose is beautiful, the stories engaging, and (though some have complained about the complexity) I loved the way they all interlock. It is simply fabulous, and I highly recommend it to anyone who loves mythology, folk stories, and/or high fantasy. Approach it with patience, it is convoluted, but so worth it.
on 16 January 2008
This book was good it is hard to describe how good it was. The many stories the girl with the tatooed eyes tells weave together expertly and sometimes so subtly you don't realise initially how they connect.It is, as the blurb describes it, a new arabian nights.
I really enjoyed this book and I'm already planning to order the sequel.
on 4 October 2012
One of the most amazing books I have read for a long time. I could not put it down. Valente's prose is poetic and lyrical and never strays into cliche or flowery territory. The stories unfold from within each other like a set of intricate chinese boxes, each section yielding a new treasure. The denser stories occasionally get a little confusing, but nothing that should put off the attentive reader. I would recommend this gorgeous fantasy to anybody. I was heartbroken when it ended, I never wanted to turn the last page!
on 24 February 2013
this author is almost unbearably good. the depth of her imagination leaves me spinning. though i loved this book, i didn't find it a real page turner, as the story-within-a-story-within-a-story structure doesn't allow you to really get attached to any particular character.
on 20 May 2011
Stories within stories like matryoshka dolls, intertwined within a complex tapestry. The tales of the titular orphan will bring you into a world of fantasy and wonders, perils and mysteries, witches and wizards, monsters and princes, heroes and sailors, saints and stars. Cat Valente at her best.
on 16 February 2014
The most beautiful story filled with even more beautiful stories. My new favourite book, this story is really something special.