review: The Orphans Tales, by Catherynne M. Valente
Posted June 23, 2011on:
published in 2006
where I got it: library
why I read it: have really, really enjoyed other novels by this author
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.