the Little Red Reviewer

review: The Orphans Tales, by Catherynne M. Valente

Posted on: June 23, 2011

The Orphans Tales: In the Night Garden by Catherynne M. Valente

published in 2006

where I got it: library

why I read it: have really, really enjoyed other novels by this author

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A cross between a book of Grimm’s fairy tales and 1001 Arabian Nights, The Orphans Tales: In the Night Garden, winner of the 2006 Tiptree Award, is unlike anything you have ever read.

At the very beginning, a unnamed girl who lives in a garden tells a boy she must tell her stories backwards, and that was always in the back of my mind as I read.  Not only did everything come together at the end, but so did the magical sentence “Stories are like prayers. It does not matter when you begin, or when you end. . . “   Have truer words every been spoken? Does it matter where you crack open your book of fairy tales? the witch  always shows up eventually, right?

And this book does have a witch, and a wizard, and pirates and monsters and griffins and eggs and firebirds and a tree-woman and a ship-tree and Stars that are Gods. Nested tale by nested tale, the mythology of the world grows and breathes to the point where you don’t know where reality ends, nor does it matter. This is a book that should be hoarded, should be meted out slowly, like Chocolate during a time of rationing.  I read this as fast as I could (which wasn’t very), treating it like a plot based story. Too much chocolate on an empty stomach makes anyone feel yucky.  Learn from my mistake: don’t read this book fast. Savor it.

Yet again, this is me reviewing a Valente book with a rush of emotion and reaction, and very little info about the actual book.

The basics of the book are thus: When a cursed girl was born into the Sultan’s court, no one would claim her, nor could they kill or banish her for fear of offending her probably demon parents. So she lived in the gardens, raised among topiaries and orange trees.  A princely boychild of the harem, out of boredom, deigned to speak to her. And she starts telling him a story. and another, and another and another.  Scheherazade would be proud.

The girl starts with the story of a prince who ran away from home and met a witch. And the witch tells the story of being raised by her grandmother who was taught by a horse woman.  The Prince in the story goes on a quest to avenge the death of the witches daughter, and he meets a Tavern owner, who tells a tale about the Marsh King and his monster, and the monster tells a tale of the beast maiden and the wizard, and so on and so forth.  Because I’m anal retentive like that, I kept track of the interweaving stories.

The volume is divided into two volumes: In the Night Garden, and The Book of the Sea. Quickly I began to notice the higih population of monstrous creatures. Monsters who were born that way and proud of it, or regular men and women who were cursed or ran afoul of demons or wizards, or were otherwise unlucky and gained new skins and flesh that deemed them unworthy of polite company.

Throughout the entire book is the message that words have power.  Stories also have power, but words more than anything have power above all.  The moment someone calls you a monster, that is the only way the world will see you.  In The Night Garden, we meet a lot of monsters, and they are ugly and disgusting and dangerous and destined to be killed by princes who are rescuing damsels: exactly what society expects from both sides of story. For the most part, these stories are fairly gentle. In The Book of The Sea, we meet other monsters, who are pious, beautiful, strong, brave, fiercely protective, and destined to save the world. For the most part, these stories are fairly violent.  The mythology has named all these creatures as monstrous.  How will you name them?

There is a second volume of The Orphans tales, which I am intensely curious about, if only to see what happens to a certain Wizard who kept showing up over and over and over again in the stories.  At first, he seemed like a bad guy, but so did the Griffin and the Leucrotta and the Black Papess, and they all turned out to be OK people, so now I wonder about the Wizard’s destiny as well.

It took me far too long to read this book. probably four or five days, which for me, over a weekend, is a long time to plow through 400 pages. Why so long?  Because as lovely as this book was, the writing style did not work for me. Without a main character (or even a group of main characters) or much of an overarching plot to grasp onto, I felt like these stories were nice and all, but that they weren’t working towards anything. I felt lost.  Yes, many of the stories interweave, but really not that much.

Remember I said this is a book that should be savored like fine chocolate? I think it would have worked for me better, been more magical if I had read it a little bit at a time, maybe only 20 or 30 pages per day instead of 80 or 100. And this folks, is why I stopped rating books.  Was this book heart breakingly beautiful, overflowing with mythology and magical beyond words? Yes, all that and more: it was more cave of wonders than book.  Was it enjoyable to read? It pains me to say only some of the time.

Valente’s more recent books, The Habitation of the Blessed, and Deathless (you can find my reviews of these in the review index tab at the top of the page), are two of the most incredible books I have ever read.  The Orphans Tales didn’t work for me, but I believe if Valente hadn’t done The Orphans Tales first, her later books would not have been as stunning. I can see where the seeds of Habitation of the Blessed, which is filled with framed stories, and Deathless, which weaves reality and folklore together in a most unbelievable fashion, grew from the creation of the Orphans Tales.

If you are a fan of fairy tales (fairy tales for grown ups!!), nested stories, or mythology, or folklore, do give The Orphans Tales a try.  but learn from my mistake: don’t rush it.

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17 Responses to "review: The Orphans Tales, by Catherynne M. Valente"

That’s just great. Another author to add to my wish list! ;-)
I think I’ll check out the later works though.

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I’m sorry this didn’t stand up as well against her other works for you, but I can see how reading later works first might paint this in a different light, as well as reading it in bigger chunks. I read this not long after it came out, and to this day it remains my favorite of her work. Still haven’t read DEATHLESS or THE GIRL WHO CIRCUMNAVIGATED FAIRYLAND yet, though. :)

Do you think you’ll read volume 2?

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Sounds like a great book.

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Sounds intriguing; I have a soft spot fairy tales and folklore and I’ve been meaning to check out her work for a while. If I can’t find this or Deathless I did notice my local library had Palimpsest – a good place to start?

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Shara, I do hope to read the 2nd volume eventually. Since I know what I’m in for, it’ll be a little easier. And I really do want to find out what happens to the girl, the boy, and the boy’s sister!

Futurewired – Palimpsest is a Valente I haven’t gotten to yet. there is no such thing as a “bad” place to start with Valente, but I do think that her style has gotten more polished with her newer stuff. Deathless is brand spankin’ new, see if your library wants to buy a copy maybe.

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Can I just say that I don’t recommend Valente virgins to start with Palimpsest? It’s a beautiful book, don’t get me wrong, but for newbies to the author, I think it’s the wrong choice. The Orphan’s Tale: In the Night Garden is far more friendly to newbies, though I can’t comment on her most recent releases as I haven’t gotten to them yet. :)

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thanks for letting me know about Palimpsest, and that maybe it’s not the best starting place! my first Valente was The Habitation of the Blessed, and sure, the writing style took a little bit of getting used to (whose doesn’t?) but I think that one, or even Deathless, would be a good starting spot.

if you do get to some of her newer stuff, I really want to know what you think of Deathless. People seemed to either love it or hate it.

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This is one of those books, or rather both volumes, are ones that I cannot believe that I haven’t snatched up and devoured. I truly and deeply love the story within a story device in novels, and a little girl telling a series of stories is something that is right up my alley.

The nice thing about my own reading oddities is that when it comes to bigger short story collections like this one I tend to read it more slowly anyway, so hopefully when the time comes I will be able to heed your advice and savor it slowly.

I can tell you where Valente newbies should *not* start and that is where I did, with A Guide to Folktales in Fragile Dialects. I read and reviewed it awhile back. It is a great book, don’t get me wrong, but my knowledge of old folk and fairy tales is not what it needed to be to truly grasp the beauty of what she was doing there. I would still recommend it for people who like to be challenged in their reading, but it isn’t a starting point for her work.

I often prefer to start new authors with short story collections if they have them. I am a big fan of the short story anyway, and if an author does short stories well then I am much more inclined to pick up their longer works.

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Thanks for the advice! I shall put Palimpsest to one side for the moment and try one of the others. Definitely intrigued now…

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Link to a very intriguing sounding collection:

Unfortunately on in Kindel format.

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“only in Kindle” – not a bad speller, just a rotten typist!

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lol, you bad typist!!

I’ve heard of that letter project, and it’s only e-book? arrghh, AND it’s illustrated? no fair!

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I’m always looking for new things to read, and this author sounds intriguing. I think I’ll add her to my list. I’m glad I found your blog! Can’t wait to read more reviews.

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Hi Onegirlgeek, thanks for visiting! I’ve a few more Valente reviews floating around here someplace. . . :)

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Be afraid…be very afraid. You’ve opened Pandora’s box to more books than your world can handle! ;-)

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If you do read the sequel to this, don’t follow my mistake and wait forever. It is really like one book divided into 2 and I was a bit confused because it had been way too long!

I have something else by her out from the library… Deathless. Glad to see you enjoyed it!

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oohhh, Deathless is wonderful! I hope you like it!

I’m headed to the library tonight, if they’ve got a copy of the 2nd Orphan’s Tales, i may not be able to resist. A lot of folks have told me not to wait too long between the volumes, and there is so much detail and intertwining things that I can really see how it’s a good idea to read them close together.

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