Catherynne M Valente
Completed 12/13/2021, Reviewed 12/14/2021
This book blew me away, mostly because of its form. It’s a collection of stories, sort of like the story of Scheherazade and the 1001 Nights. Here, a girl tells stories to a young prince. The remarkable thing, though, is that the stories are nested. She begins one tale, within which is another tale, within which is another tale, and so on. All the stories are within the same universe and the characters all overlap. Left in average hands, this could have been a mess, but Valente does it expertly and with such deft that it is easy to follow. You never feel that there is exposition because the recursive form makes each story seem vital. This book and its sequel “In the Cities of Coin and Spice” together won the 2008 Mythopoeic Award. This volume alone won the 2006 Otherwise Award and was nominated for the 2007 World Fantasy Award.
The plot is really difficult to convey. The outermost story is about a girl labeled as a demon, abandoned by her family, shunned by the community, and living alone in the royal gardens. A young prince, one of many children of the Caliph, sneaks out of the castle looking for adventure. He finds her there and she begins to tell him the stories which are inked around her eyes so closely together, they make her eyes look dark, hollow, and evil, hence the demon label. But the stories entrance him and soon he is engrossed in the nested stories. He sneaks out daily, bringing her food in exchange for the storytelling. His eldest sister, caretaker of all the children, finds out and punishes him, but he always finds a way to get back to the storyteller.
The stories are all magical and mythical. There are so many, it’s hard to remember them all, so I’ll quote the blurb on the back of the book. There are “…tales of shape-shifting witches and wild horsewomen, heron kings and beast princesses, snake gods, dog monks, and living stars…” And that’s just a few. With their interweaving form, it’s hard to say which specific stories I liked. I have to say it was all engrossing because of their form. One might think that it may get annoying because you’d just want a story to finish, and a few times I did, but mostly I just wanted to keep reading to get through the whole complexity to its conclusion.
It’s really hard to talk about the components of the book, like the characterization, because there are so many stories and characters. However, I can say that the characters are all pretty well developed and the world building is simply mindboggling. It’s like reading many, many interrelated fairy tales with a cast of thousands. But once you buy into them, the characters are marvelous. The book is divided into two major story sets. In the second one, I did get a bit confused because there are several characters named Sigrid, but that cleared up as I kept reading. Overall, the characters are colorful and most are of ambiguous morality. They aren’t cookie cutter good guys vs. bad guys. Some are fun, some are scary, and all are richly drawn.
I’ll be reading the second book in a few months, maybe sooner, and I expect the review of that will be very similar to this one. I’m so glad I read this book because the only other book I read of Valente’s was Palimpsest, which I did not like. Though to be honest, I listened the audio of it while driving. So maybe I need to give that one another shake.
I give this book five stars out of five. It’s simply an amazing experience to read. I recommend reading it quickly to keep all the stories fresh in your mind. I would think that if you read this over a month, say, you might lose yourself in the recursive form. At one point, I almost did. But it’s well worth the effort. Despite there being a sequel, it stands alone pretty well. However, the experience is so awesome that I definitely will read the sequel (also because it’s part of my challenge to read all the Mythopoeic winners, and since the sequel was part of the win…). Anyway, I highly recommend this book if you’re up for a bit of a challenge. The reward is great.