The Folded World by Catherynne Valente
Posted November 4, 2011on:
The Folded World by Catherynne Valente (Book two of A Dirge for Prester John)
Published by Night Shade Books, Nov 1, 2011
Where I got it: purchased new
Why I read it: I loved the first book, The Habitation of the Blessed
The truth has teeth and claws that bite and tear. We turn the truth into stories to hide the scars and soften the blows, and help us forget where the bodies are buried.
Except when the story is true. Those are the ones that bleed the longest.
How is it that a retelling of an obscure myth can carry so much truth as to be unbearable? How is it that I can look to nearly any passage in The Folded World and say “ah yes, that’s exactly how the world really is”?
Picking up immediately where The Habitation of Blessed left off, at the beginning of The Folded World Brother Alaric is given the opportunity to pluck more books off the tree. He randomly chooses three books, and he and the other monks begin copying; trying not to pay attention to what they are reading, endeavoring not to succumb to the power of memory, as Brother Hiob did. They have to copy fast, these books are living things and have already begun to rot.
Put together in a similar style as Habitation of the Blessed (and you really must read these novels in order), we learn the stories in each of the three books as Alaric is copying them, but unlike Alaric, we are free to be seduced by them. The three narratives twist and tumble around one another, leaving hints here and there of things that happened, or perhaps things that are to come. Valente’s prose is as always, so beautiful you want to cry, filled with metaphors that at first blush seem like they shouldn’t work, but with laughter on the lips you find they work perfectly. I need to open the monster Thesaurus I just bought, so I can find the word that means “more incredible that I could have ever thought possible”, and use it to describe The Folded World. I wanted to read this entire book out loud, just to see if the words sounded as beautiful as they looked (for the record, even though I only read portions out loud, they did).
The Book of the Ruby is written by Prester John’s wife Hagia, and tells of John’s crane-warrior daughter Anglitora. How Aglitora came to John’s court bearing a helmet and a letter inviting John back to Christendom, his army of creatures is needed to win Jerusalem. In a land where to live is to be immortal and to die is to grow again in the fertile soil, no one remembers what war really means. War is a game with biting and chasing, war is a novelty, and everyone wants to make John happy enough that he stops trying to convert everyone.
The Left Hand Eye and the Right Hand Mouth is written by Vyala the Lion. She is caretaker to Sefalet, the daughter of Prester John and Hagia. Poor Sefalet is truly of two minds about the world, and I get the impression her parents wish she had been born differently. When half the court goes off to war, Sefalet, Vyala and the rest of the court are sent to Babel to build a cathedral on the ruins of that tower. It would have helped if John had told them what a cathedral is supposed to look like. With the help of a genius architect, they begin to build. And then the stones start talking.
The Virtue of Things is in the Midst of Them is by John Mandeville, and it is all lies. Except the parts that aren’t. Shipwrecked on the other side of the wall in Pentexore, John Mandeville finds himself the guests of Ymra and Ysra, who rule on that side of the diamond wall and can never escape. But John Mandeville knows the truth of it, that telling stories is dangerous work indeed, because the truth has teeth.
Prester John is hardly in this story at all, because this part of the story isn’t about him at all. It’s about his wife Hagia, his daughters Sefalet and Anglitora, the paradise that made him King because they thought it would make him happy, and about a man who told only lies, until he told only the truth. This is a story about Lions who gain one child to lose another, mothers who fear their children, the languages of Emeralds, what really happens when you hunt a unicorn, and going home. It is about how history is collected and told, the nature of God, the nature of love, and how the pain of failure and the pain of truth can be the same thing. Although this book is filled with much sadness, I was intensely happy while reading it. Wrapped up in two hundred and fifty one pages and over flowing with wonder and beauty and tragedy and utter perfection, The Folded World is a religious experience, albeit not “religious” in the way we’ve been taught to use the word.
Enjoyable on multiple levels, you can read The Folded World as a fairy tale of monstrous proportions starring a preacher who failed to convert a flock, or further as a war story that starts out noble and exciting and honorable until you get there and the blood starts flowing, or even deeper yet.
If you’ve never read a Catherynne Valente, do yourself a favor and start reading her. Start with The Habitation of the Blessed, or Deathless, or The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of her Own Making, or The Orphans Tales. Valente writes like no one else, as if no one ever told her “You’re doing it wrong. Books aren’t supposed to be things that glow with light, they’re not supposed to be stained glass windows into the soul, they’re just supposed to be simple things full of paper and ink and words that make sentences, ”, she writes like she’s never been afraid of anything, like the possibilities of the world are truly infinite.