Cold Iron & Rowan-Wood

October 21, 2010

Catherynne Valente – The Habitation of the Blessed

Filed under: review — Tags: , , , , , , — Sam @ 12:16 pm

This isn’t officially released till the 1st of November, but it’s available early for the Kindle and through Webscriptions, where you can read sample chapters.

To summarize the plot briefly, a monk reads three books. He is Hiob von Luzern and he has travelled Eastwards in search of the legendary kingdom of Prester John, who in 1165 sent a long letter to western Christendom detailing the marvellousness of his person and the realms under his rule.

Hiob picked the books himself from the tree where they grow, and is racing to copy them before—like all fruit—they spoil and succumb to mould. The first is The Word in the Quince: “an Account of My Coming to the Brink of the World, and What I Found There, As told by John of Constantinople, Committed to Eternity by his Wife, Hagia, who was afterwards called Theotokos”.

It is, as you would expect, a story of strangeness and newness, of a man missing his first home and his love, clinging to his own notions of rightness and truth in the face of an entire nation who do not know Jesus and who think the concept is Extremely Silly. It’s also a story of a man finding his truth and falling in love. John is an extraordinarily self-centred man and this never changes, but his wife & amanuensis Hagia of the Blemmyae[1] is always present in the text she records.

The second, The Book of the Fountain (“an Account of Her Life Composed by Hagia of the Blemmyae Without Other Assistance”) is her own story, and there we see much more of Pentexore—of the wonderful soil wherein anything, or anyone, which is planted will grow into a tree after its kind; of the multiplicity of races; of the Fountain which confers eternal life; and of the Abir. Every three hundred years, the whole civic and social life of Pentexore is whirled about and shaken and stirred, because immortals inevitably get bored, and a historian might become a playwright, or a amyctrya who brewed poisons and perfumes in his huge jaw like a barrel become a maker of ink instead.

Stories are a heady and an addictive thing in this world (where aren’t they?), and there’s a constant tension running through the novel between faithful, accurate transmission and the golden glow of propriety bestowed by editorial redaction. Brother Hiob voices it, but others live it.

The third book, The Scarlet Nursery, has the subtitle “Told by Imtithal the Panoti[2] to the Three Children of Queen Abir, Who Were Lamis the Reticent, Ikram the Intractable, and Houd, Whom You Might As Well Indulge”. It’s Imtithal’s story of herself and her own life, as she watches the three cametenna[3] children grow up, and of the stories she tells them.

I came to this knowing very little of the source material, or at least never having read the primary sources—this will almost certainly change, quite soon. So I shall say only that the first of the three books reminds me rather of Philip Jose Farmer’s adventure stories, and the third of all those charming Edwardian books for older children (Travers, perhaps?), told in a precise, slightly arch manner like a panoti pirouetting over deep snow. The second is not something that wishes to be categorized by similarity, because Hagia’s voice is insistently unique. She’s a skilled scribe finally telling her own story, a forthright woman with a lot of life behind her and a lot more to come. It isn’t a retelling and revisioning of John’s story, but rather it bookends it, showing what Pentexore was like before he arrived, and how he ruled. It makes me wonder a little how a retelling of Where the Wild Things Are from Moishe’s perspective might look, or The Phantom Tollbooth from the Humbug’s.

The stories are interspersed rather than sequential, and thoroughly fractal; each book contains other books, and tellers of stories, and listeners to stories, and allusions to stories that are not told or not heard.

It’s the first part of a trilogy, but is very much a complete tale on its own; I confidently expect the others to be very similar things, rather than “the middle” and “the end”.


[1] A blemmy has no head, but instead has her face set into her chest, with eyes where those persons possessed of heads keep their nipples, and a mouth at the navel.
[2] A panoti is a small pale person with immense ears, which they can wrap around themselves or a friend like a bat. They do not eat, but live off pleasant sounds.
[3] Cametenna have pumpkin-coloured eyes and extraordinarily large hands.

July 11, 2010

Catherynne M Valente – Palimpsest

Filed under: review,Uncategorizable — Tags: , , , — Sam @ 3:41 pm

What should I write about this book—this book that is a city, this city that is a book, this book that is many books and none of them complete?

Cities are built upon cities and the graves of cities; books are nurtured on the warm, rich humus of libraries, the rotted and matured drifts of pages. A word, a phrase here and there, escapes the embrace of time and settles instead into a new book, bedding down in a second home.

People, too, are built on the ruin and the glory of past selves. The things we do, the books we read, the lovers we take all leave their marks on us, and we mark our cities, our books, our lovers in turn.

We must ask ourselves, then: upon what is Palimpsest written? What was reused, what was erased, what was allowed to remain, that this book could come to me like bread still warm from the oven?

It rests upon three pillars. The first, a thing of steel and mother of pearl, is the portal quest; four very different people find a new world, and there is a destiny only they can fulfill. The second is strange and fantastical, but nobody else gives it more than a passing glance; after all, they see it every day. The world is revealed slowly, in sidelong allusions and small pieces to be jigsawed together—or tossed down and left to make what pattern they will. The last has the dream-logic and strange gravities of a new relationship, of an unexpected seduction, of the discipline you never knew would be your life.

It subverts the portal-quest, in that there is no wizard, no eternally trustworthy guide—and in that the transitions between worlds are quietly backgrounded. An immersive fantasy is normally one in which the reader is the only stranger, and little care is given to make her feel at home; this is very much not the case in Palimpsest. The only intrusion is that of our protagonists, and in the end, that is accepted rather than resolved. And, whilst in the liminal fantasy, the fantastic approaches and retreats (or, conversely, is approached and retreated from) here the fantastic and the reader take their places in a winding, looping dance of approach & retreat, teasingly, seductively. But we all know how those dances end, and so it is with this.

Despite the size and complexity of the city of Palimpsest—which is, after all, almost de rigueur for city fantasy—it feels very circumscribed, very personalized. And the story tells you, its own self, that this is for you: that no other reader has been given the same book.

So, then, let us close the book, and leave the city to live happily ever after. When we return to it, it will be made new.

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