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The Folded World by Catherynne Valente

“We are all just humans, and most of us fools, and all of us longing for more than we have, to know more than we know- and yet even that is not enough, for if we knew everything we would only be disappointed that there was not one more secret to uncover.” -Catherynne Valente, The Folded World, pg 170

Prester John and Hagia have a daughter, with a sweet mouth on her right hand while a bitter sits on her left, two opposing personalities in one body pulling all the world in one direction. Prester John has another daughter, a crane’s wing where her second arm should be, the result of a fierce and half-forgotten coupling early in his sojourn.

Prester John has an answer to his letter, a plea from Jerusalem for the great king to come to the aid of Christendom with his armies of mythical creatures and magics.

So Prester John takes his wife and fierce crane-winged daughter with him to war, leaving his gentle two-mouthed daughter with a lion who teaches love. While across the diamond wall another human stumbles into lands far stranger than his wildest imaginings and in the dark of the forest a unicorn is lured to the slaughter.

The Folded World retains the mesmerizing air of Habitation of the Blessed, weaving layers of narrative voices that pull together in a rich, decadent tapestry of human emotion and tragedy. Every character is working to sort out their place in a world that is so much larger than any of them had imagined, with pleasures and perils aplenty. It is a book that will reach out to anyone who has ever wondered where they fit in, how to make themselves fit in. From priests to princesses, it is a book about acceptance, on every imaginable level. Valente’s prose is, again, an absolute pleasure to read- rich with sounds and shapes that paint a fascinatingly unique picture sure to leave you daydreaming.

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Deathless by Catherynne M. Valente

She watched the husbands fall out of the tree and come for her sisters. Handsome birds that became humans as they hit the ground and came to the door to knock. She waited for a bird of her own, but as the years went by and no bird fell into a husband for her, Marya despaired of being bird-less forever. She sees the magic in the little things, the way her house, groaning and stretching to accommodate twelve families under the fiercely cooperative reign of Stalin, starts to grow under the careful hands of the house spirits. She sees the domoviye, attends one of their meetings, and learns that Papa Koschei is coming for her.

Koschei the Deathless, Tsar of Life, has chosen Marya to be his. He carries her off across the land in a car that runs with no driver, to a land where everything is living. Houses are made of skin that gathers gooseflesh in chill breezes and the fountains bubble up living blood instead of water. She enters a world of Life that is constantly at war with Death and changes ever so slowly and subtly from the bookish, odd girl who had watched birds fall to be husbands to a fierce woman who hunts firebirds for sport and keeps company with rifle imps and woodland spirits. And yet, Koschei does not marry her. Marya wants for nothing, her life is filled with every imaginable opulent pleasure, but that one thing. And that one thing is impossible without the permission of Koschei’s sister.

Baba Yaga, Koschei’s sister, gives Marya three impossible tasks. Should Marya complete them, Baba Yaga will give her blessing on the marriage. With the help of her closest companions, Marya struggles through the tasks, learning more about herself and her desired husband, and eventually gaining Koschei’s marriage vows.

But the Tsar of Death wriggles into their world and everything changes. There is a war going on, and the war is going badly.

Deathless tells two stories, one about revolutionary, communist Russia. The other the mystical world of the Tsar of Life and his endless war against the Tsar of Death. Both conflicts weave in and out of each other, coming to a collective crisis point that will leave a reader breathless in a mix of horror and anticipation. There were points where the reader is hard-pressed to decide which is the nightmare and which reality.

It is a brutal, bloody, and passionate book, filled with the oldest and best pieces of romance in all their stark beauty. Here is devotion that goes beyond death. Here is death that is inexorable and greedy and frighteningly patient.

Deathless is a beautiful book. It is historical, mythological, and one of the most wonderful romances I have ever read. Highly recommended.

Ventriloquism by Catherynne M. Valente

“But I am telling this story, and the honor of refracting the angle of the reader’s vision is mine and mine alone.” –Secret History of Mirrors, from Ventriloquism by Catherynne M. Valente.

It is Valente’s unique perspective that makes this book stand out. Each story sings with startling individuality and makes the reader take notice and really read.

Ventriloquism is an eerie and beautiful read, an effortless melding of the familiar and the strange into something that is alluring and horrifying and impossible to put down. It is an exultation of words and images- weaving stories with sensation and emotion, raising goosebumps and heart rates.

It would be impossible to pick out favorites, but the strongest pieces were the ones that crept up on the reader, revealing something familiar from the core of something strange and catching the reader breathless and surprised. Valente has a way of taking rather worn out fairy tales and images and coaxing from them something so new that the original is made stronger as a result. There are beautiful and horrifying relatives to Hansel and Gretel, Sleeping Beauty, Snow White… Valente touches upon some of the most beautiful and quiet mythologies and breathes life into them.

If you find yourself reveling in the way a story sounds, tastes, and feels as you read, this is most definitely the book for you. The words aren’t just written to form the stories, they are the integral pieces of the puzzle and every one of them is carefully chosen and important.

PS Publishing

Subterranean Press

The Habitation of the Blessed by Catherynne M. Valente

There is something beautiful and utterly enthralling about this book. It is in the words, deftly woven together to paint such pictures as you have never imagined. It is in the characters, flawed in perfect ways and you cannot help but love them for it. Being interrupted while reading was like surfacing from a deep swim or a deep nap, and took time to reorient back into the world.

It is in the telling- there are is a fascinating mix of point of view characters, and the whole book reads like a diary, which in essence much of it is.

The beautiful and the grotesque walk hand and hand through this book, leaving a rich trail of prose that will keep the reader turning pages, both excited and dreading what will be revealed in the next paragraph, the next story.

The book is based on the legend of Prester John and the paradise he was supposed to have ruled, and a letter that started spreading around Europe that was supposedly from this legendary man. It takes all the magnificence and magic of the legend and suggests ‘what if it all were true…’

Part historical fantasy, part look into the human soul and the things we desperately want to believe in, The Habitation of the Blessed is a truly stunning work, and I cannot wait to read more.