Monday, April 26, 2010

The Orphan's Tales, Vol.1: In the Night Garden

In the gardens of the Sultan's palace, there lives a young outcast, an orphan thought to bring bad luck, or to be cursed, or to be a demon, because she was born with a dark birthmark across her eyes, like the mask of a raccoon. Whenever any of the other children encounter her in the gardens, they run away in terror - all except one boy, one of the many sons of the Sultan. He stands his ground and tells her he is not scared (although he is).

Because he does not run away, because he stays and talks with her, the girl tells him the truth about her birthmark - she was not born with it, but a spirit came into her cradle and touched her face when she was a baby:

"...and left there many tales and spells, like the tattoos of sailors. The verses and songs were so great in number and so closely written that they appeared as one long, unbroken streak of jet on my eyelids. But they are the words of the river and the marsh, the lake and the wind. Together they make a great magic, and when the tales are all read out, and heard end to shining end, to the last syllable, the spirit will return and judge me."

The boy begs her to tell him one of the stories, and she agrees. But they must hide from everyone, because it is forbidden for him to speak with the girl, and if his oldest sister finds out, she will be furious.

The tales of the orphan are fantastical and full of every fairytale trope that ever appeared in a volume of Grimm or Andersen, but with twists and distortions, shifts and surprises, and soaring flights of fancy. She layers tales within tales within tales, moving seamlessly from one level up to another and another, then back down again. The stories are interconnected, but it is not always immediately apparent precisely what the connection is.

I loved that the switches in point of view from one storyteller to another give additional perspective to the tale, so that I kept reinterpreting the events of the story in the light of the new information. There were also recurring characters from one story to the next, and when they appeared, suddenly certain events would shift into focus, as I realized that this story was set in the same country as a previous story, which meant that the king was the same king who did such-and-such, and so - oh, wow, the queen was actually the little girl we met in that other story, etc. It made my head spin sometimes, but most definitely in a good way.

Periodically the stories would surface back up to the original one, in which the orphan is telling stories to the boy in the garden. None of the tales were about either of the children - as far as I could tell - but I have a sense that some revelations about the two of them may be in store for us in the second, and final, volume of these stories.

I loved this book. I love Valente's evocative writing, the compelling characters and bizarre situations in which they find themselves. I love the resonant, mythological undertones that make the stories seem as though they've been passed down through the generations, and I love the way that the characters have much more depth than typical fairytale characters. I am very much looking forward to reading the second volume of The Orphan's Tales. I leave you with a passage from the book, chosen at random, simply to show the sense of wonder that permeates these pages:
There is nothing quite like the moment a sail clutches the wind and opens under it like the legs of a merry fishwife. The sound of it, the echoing billow as the air blows out the fabric, the surge forward and the spray in the teeth--it is the sound that heralds the beginning of new worlds, the birth of litters of wish-granting seals in a hundred secret grottos, the grinding of new rivers through mountains which witnessed the first flood and chuckled at their wet toes.

It filled Sigrid's heart like wine into an oak barrel.

The Orphan's Tales, Vol. 1: In the Night Garden by Catherynne M. Valente; illustrated by Michael Kaluta (Bantam Spectra, 2006)

Also reviewed at:
A Garden Carried in the Pocket: "Valente's writing pulls you in through the cycle of tales that circle around and back again, introducing new characters and new tales that all have interconnections; every apparent loose thread is deftly interwoven with a new story."
Fantasy Book Critic: "... a fascinating book that I believe any true lover of fantasy would cherish, and I’m sure I’m not the only one who is eagerly anticipating the second part of the duology..."


  1. Ah! I've been having this on my TBR shelf ever since Jenclair reviewed it AGES ago!! I really should read it, huh? Your review might finally push me over the edge :p Maybe I'll try to get it in before the end of OUaT!

  2. I have no idea why I haven't read this yet - I'm sure I'm going to adore it!

  3. gads.. this is in my tbr pile too!!! glad this book was so enjoyable!

  4. Chris - You are definitely in for a treat with this one - I know you'll love it! It is the perfect choice for OUaT, too.

    Nymeth - I can't believe you haven't read this! Yes, I think you will adore it - I can't wait to hear what you think of it.

    Deslily - It really was enjoyable, so good that I was pleased it took me a while to get through it, since I didn't want it to end. I hope you can get to it soon!

  5. Hooray! I read this book a year ago. It reminded me that I should sometimes read just for the fun of the imagery and language the right words can evoke. I loved how she took something as simple as fairytales and wove them into a complex story of their own. The next book, CITIES OF COIN AND SPICE, throws in even more stories then brings them full circle to a most beautiful conclusion.

  6. FuzzyCricket - Oh, I'm so happy to hear that the second one did not disappoint, because I have very high hopes for it. I'm glad you enjoyed this one, too! :-)

  7. I clearly need to read some of this author. I don't really know what I'm waiting for.

  8. Kiirstin - Yes, you do! I definitely have a "Where have you been all my life?" kind of feeling about her books. I'd love to hear what you think of them!


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