Sunday, August 3, 2008

Catherynne M. Valente - The Orphan's Tales Duology (Book Review)

The Orphan's Tales: In The Night Garden (Amazon: US, UK)
& In the Cities of Coin and Spice (Amazon: US, UK)
by Catherynne M. Valente
Format: Paperback, 496 pages & 528 pages
Publisher: Spectra Books
Once, there was a palace of a sultan, and around the palace, a garden was spread wide and blooming. In this garden, full of beautiful flowers, exotic trees and singing birds, there was also one young, wild girl. No one knew her name and origins - even more, they all turned away from her and never let her set foot onto the palace floor. That was because this girl had dark circles around her eyes like a raccoon, and so people whispered she was a demon, a devil, a cursed one.

But despite all that, one day there came a young boy from the palace who didn't fear the girl. She revealed her secret to this young prince and then told him stories she read in the ink around her eyes ...


As a kid, how fond were you of fairytales? Personally, I loved them. I had a book where there was a tale for each day, a set of 'seasonal' books which included a book of tales for each season, Grimms' Fairy Tales and The Great Big Treasury of Beatrix Potter. Later on, these were replaced by a depressing book, written by Oscar Wilde (The Happy Prince and Other Tales) and a huge, nameless collection of folk tales, edited and collected by Italo Calvino. Maybe you've red other stories, ones I have no clue about, but I'm sure about one thing - my younger self would kill for "Orphan's Tales" and made it reasonable with only one sentence: it's the ultimate storybook. And by this I most certainly don't mean to say that this duology is meant for children only - it's more like a book for children of all ages.

At first glance, "Orphan's Tales" doesn't differ from an ordinary storybook, despite being published in two volumes. The story begins like all classicall tales, there are pretty illustrations accompanying the text, a nicely done deckled edge and the books as a whole are overall quite adorable. But as you immerse deeper and deeper into Valente's wonderful world, you realise there is something more to the tales. There are small details and trinkets we usually don't find in fairytales - e.g. when a girl dances with a Firebird, she inevitably gets severe burns. It's a realistich touch that makes the tales much more believable, despite the fantastic elements and the often grotesque settings and creatures. A touch of light irony is also sensed at times, as Valente plays with the romantic, idealistic view which is found in classical fairytales. In "Orphan's Tales", the brave princes are often stupid, pretty princesses turn out to be half-monsters and your friend in need is the ugliest, most savage beest in the whole forest. But despite all this, the "Orphan's Tales" is essentially a 'serious' storybook, unlike Sapkowski's "Last Wish", where classical tales are turned upside-down and modernised, sometimes even made fun of.

One thing I really adored in "Orphan's Tales" is how incredibly intertwined the stories are. There is a frame narrative that supports a horde of substories, which sometimes lead to a bit of confusion, especially when you fail to remember what exactly all those were about. Both books can also be a bit long-winded if read in one big gulp and one after another, but on the other hand, it's good to read them in that way, lest you forget what exactly happened in the previous volume and miss a lot of little details that connect the stories. For example, the characters from different stories often meet later on or tell tales of one another, which I found thrilling - it's a great cohesive touch and the read is packed with realisations in the vein of "Hey, I know that one!".

While a lot of authors, even some of the masters of the trade, have trouble with writing good endings and therefore often fail to do so; Valente avoids writing a 'bad ending' with grace and certainly succeeds in writing an almost perfect ending. Since I liked the frame narrative a lot and could hardly wait to see how it ends, the fact that ending is well-written is even more important to me. It all clicks together perfectly, creating a rather surprising and (at least for me) very exciting mosaic. The only thing I would wish different is a bit happier ending for Dinrzard, but I guess one can't have everything. Anyways, "Orphan's Tales" is a superb duology and I heartily reccomend it to everyone who wishes to please his/hers inner child.
- Trin -


Anonymous said...

I never heard of ms.Valente before, but when I think of it I really need to give her a try. Thanks for pointing me in her direction.

Plinydogg said...

I hadn't heard about this book until Ms. Valente did a guest blogging stint over at Ecstatic Days. This book does sound like it's worth picking up...

Trin said...

@plinydogg: it is, believe me. :)

@anon.: no problem.

Barbara Martin said...

I loved fairy tales as a child. My favourite was the Three Billy Goats Gruff and the bridge they had to walk over with the troll hiding underneath.

I really enjoy your blog with the reviews that sometimes send me off to the bookstore.

Trin said...

Hm, I don't know that one, I think ... but nevertheless, it's nice that you enjoy our blog. :)


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