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“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.
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.