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September 8, 2008 | by  | in Books |
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The Orphan’s Tales

Catherynne M Valente’s The Orphan’s Tales: In the Night Garden (Bantam Spectra, 2006) and In the Cities of Coin and Spice (Bantam Spectra, 2007)

Confronted with a fantasy novel published in two volumes, and split into several ‘books’, it would not be unreasonable to assume that it told of some epic adventure, with a hero out to save the world. There’s no world-saving in Catherynne M Valente’s The Orphan’s Tales, no sole hero. The tales might be a history of their teller – an orphan who read the stories off her tattooed eyelids – but each book is also its own arc, built up from the voices of many. The orphan’s story is a frame for the entire world.

Valente draws from many different cultures in creating The Orphan’s Tales. The first Book of the Steepes is chiefly inspired by Russian stories, and was my favourite – it is the most mythic of the books, giving us the creation story of this world. There is the obvious inspiration of The Arabian Nights in the framing story, where the orphan transfixes a sultan’s son each night with her stories. Other characters could have popped out of a Japanese folktale. The mix is a deliberate one, and quite heady. As befitting a story with such a variety of cultural influences, the characters aren’t mono-racial either – when they are even human.

Each book is rich and filled with intriguing characters and images – women made of clockwork or tea, male selkies, children raised on poison, dog-headed monks… It is these strange creatures, woman and monster alike, who are given a voice here – voices ignored in a conventional epic. That does not mean there is any less excitement – there are adventures with pirates, quests to find the last of the griffins. But the pirates are fox women, satyrs and saints, and the griffin tells her story too.

The Orphan’s Tales is inventive and surprising, beautifully crafted and thought out, and utterly enchanting. Valente’s writing is poetic and luscious – tending toward the purple at times, but what is being described is so strange and wonderful that the language suits.

The novel may seem difficult to get into at first, as each tale is interrupted by another, and another, and it’s hard to keep track of where you are – but the best thing is just to trust to the author that the tangled pathways of story will come together. The nesting of the stories is skilfully done, so you always know who’s who, and when you see the stories pulling together, it’s quite wonderful. The only time anything got confusing was towards the end, which was disappointing – but not so much as to spoil the journey it took to get there.

In the Night Garden won the 2006 Tiptree Award, which is for gender explorations in speculative fiction. It is a book to be enjoyed by feminists and fantasy-lovers alike – or simply anyone who loves stories. Catherynne Valente clearly does.

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