the Little Red Reviewer

Project ReRead: The Habitation of the Blessed, by Catherynne M. Valente

Posted on: August 6, 2017

The Habitation of the Blessed, by Catherynne M. Valente

where I got it:  purchased new

published in 2010

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I first read and reviewed Catherynne M. Valente’s The Habitation of the Blessed in 2011, and it blew my mind. I had no idea jeweled prose like this existed, I had no idea stories could be told like this. I didn’t know an author could do these things in a novel. I remember trying to give someone a 30-second elevator pitch about this book, and I knew I couldn’t boil the entire book down into a few sentences so I simply said something like Have you ever come across a metaphor that wasn’t a metaphor, it was the truth? That’s this book. The person looked at me like I was crazy, but I think I did Habitation justice with that pitch.

This is a hard book for me to talk about, because reading it has become a sort of religious experience for me. Not religious in the way of temples or praying or god or heaven or any of that stuff, but religious in the way of looking up at the night sky, seeing the Milky Way, and feeling very small and realizing you had no idea the universe and everything in it could be this beautiful and understanding that you are a part of that beauty, you are in it, you are of it. Religious like that.

I don’t so much talk about this book as fan-girl about it.

The blurb on the back of the book reads:

“This is the story of a place that never was: the kingdom of Prester John, the utopia described by an anonymous, twelfth-century document which captured the imagination of the medieval world and drove hundreds of lost souls to seek out its secrets, inspiring explorers, missionaries, and kings for centuries. But what if it were all true? What if there was such a place, and a poor, broken priest once stumbled past its borders, discovering, not a Christian paradise, but a country where everything is possible, immortality is easily had, and the Western world is nothing but a dim and distant dream?”

I call it a “surface plot”, because this is not a book about some simple plotline. Is a book about the power of story, the power of time, the power of faith, and the beauty of being destroyed and created by those powers.

Prester John had originally been on a mission to find the grave of Thomas the Apostle when he found instead the land of Pentexore, and five hundred years later, Brother Hiob is on a mission to find the possibly immortal Prester John. Where Hiob’s journey ends, he finds a tree. A tree whose fruit are books. Hiob is allowed to pluck three books from the tree, and he finds to his luck one of the books is in the voice of Prester John himself. The second is from John’s wife Hagia, and the third is from the famous storyteller Imtithal. No matter how fast Hiob and his assistant copy and transcribe, the books turn to rot faster. The residents of Pentexore may have had immortality, but it only takes hours for their stories to decompose. (and what does it mean when someone’s story dies?)

Immediately there’s some confusion of chronology happening here – John and Hagia’s stories take place, oh, within fifty (a hundred?) years of each other, and we know Imtithal’s story takes place before John’s, we just don’t know how much earlier. Hiob is reading all three stories concurrently, making it so easy for Hiob and the reader to view John, Hagia, and Imtithal as contemporaries, instead of as three people who may have lived during very different times. Along with the confusion, there are metaphors that stand in for truth.

After the people settled in the land of Pentexore, the secret of immortality was discovered. To stave off the boredom of living in the same place forever, of having the same occupation forever, every three hundred years everyone gets a new life through a lottery – a new spouse (if they choose), a new occupation, a new town to call home. Many people love the lottery because it is a chance to start fresh, but there is no implied promise in this lottery that you’ll get what you want, or that you’ll get what will make you happy. Immortality be damned, you’re still responsible for your own happiness.

I have been thinking about these book-fruits for years, and my thoughts become ripe with metaphor. What is really rotting and falling apart here? The actual fruit, or Hiob’s faith? When he eats the fruiting body, is he ingesting belief and understanding in something larger than himself? As the books decompose, so does the physical record of the person’s thoughts and memories. Does that imply that this is the last time that particular story can ever be read? With that physical record gone, are we being told that this beautiful place, this maybe dream, is now over, and we should go back to living our lives? And my questions and thoughts go on and on, as if I am walking through a vineyard where on the vines grow questions instead of grapes. I wonder if the answers taste like wine.

For a long time I wondered if the tree was planted on a mass grave, and maybe that was why it bore the fruits of so many different people. A mass grave? What a dark and morbid idea! I’ve been mulling over the idea of a mass grave for years, but now I’ve decided the tree wasn’t planed on a mass grave, but perhaps it is a reliquary or sorts. Even better, is that trees bear fruit every year. If Hiob hadn’t been so manic, maybe he’d have realized all he needed to do was make pilgrimage to this tree every year, and he could pick a fresh book off the tree (a right he’d have to earn, I’m sure). A tree full of the stories and knowledge of everyone who lived in this mythical location. Quite a tree of knowledge!

All of the above will makes sense to anyone who has read The Habitation of The Blessed.

Some authors just sit down and write a story. Valente creates symphonies of color and supernovae with her words. Her characters are so much larger and deeper than even the words plot and character, her prose demands to be read out loud. I dare you to read a chapter about Imtithal and not feel like you are sitting right there in her embrace, enraptured by her voice (Especially that story she tells when Houd breaks the statue). Oh Imtithal, you are so quiet and reserved and you’ve never complained about anything. But everyone knows who you really are, everyone except John, which is why you love him, why you see him as freedom.

So, that’s me, fangirling all over Valente’s The Habitation of the Blessed. Sometimes you go to reread a book and you’re worried it won’t be as good as you remember. But this book? It was a hundred times better than I’d remembered. What grad program do I need to get into so that I can write a thesis on the power of story and metaphor, as presented in The Habitation of the Blessed??

As a reviewer, when I read a book this beautiful, I have to be careful of what I read next, as even an excellent book will run the risk of seeming mediocre in comparison. Luckily, the book I picked up after recovering from Habitation was Martha Wells’ All Systems Red, which could never be seen as anything but incredible.

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some of the books reviewed here were free ARCs supplied by publishers/authors/other groups. Some of the books here I got from the library. the rest I *gasp!* actually paid for. I'll do my best to let you know what's what.
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