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..."