Do you remember how, in The Neverending Story, Michael Ende would start telling us about a side character, only to drop his or her story with the sentence “but that is another story, and shall be told another time”? The Orphan’s Tales is what happens when you don’t stop, when each character gets to tell their story, and when all these stories are intricately and beautifully entwined to form a breathtaking whole.
Illustrated by: Michael Kaluta
Published by: Spectra, 2006
Paperback: 483 pages
Series: The Orphan’s Tales #1
My rating: 9,5/10
First sentence: Once there was a child whose face was like the new moon shining on cypress trees and the feathers of waterbirds.
Secreted away in a garden, a lonely girl spins stories to warm a curious prince: peculiar feats and unspeakable fates that loop through each other and back again to meet in the tapestry of her voice. Inked on her eyelids, each twisting, tattooed tale is a piece in the puzzle of the girl’s own hidden history.
And what tales she tells! Tales of shape-shifting witches and wild horsewomen, heron kings and beast princesses, snake gods, dog monks, and living stars each story more strange and fantastic than the one that came before. From ill-tempered mermaid to fastidious Beast, nothing is ever quite what it seems in these ever-shifting tales even, and especially, their teller.
My love for anything penned by Catherynne M. Valente knows no end. After the amazing and hearbreaking Deathless, I needed a recuperation period, if you will, some time to find back into the real world. Entering her books is like diving into a dream that you don’t want to wake up from. It was no different with In the Night Garden, and although Valente’s trademark lyrical style can be found within these pages, they tell stories vastly different from anything I’d read before.
The first thing any reader will notice is the structure of this tale. Nestled within the frame story – a girl telling a boy stories, secretly and at night – are more stories, which, in turn, contain yet more stories told by a wide and diverse range of characters. It is easy to think of it as a matryoshka doll, but the more I read, the more I understood that this complex and intricate structure resembles a tapestry much more than Russian nesting dolls. We follow one, or two, or five strings of story at a time, tie them off at the end, and begin a new set of stories. It becomes apparent to the attentive reader that these seemingly unrelated strings are interwoven, however, and that the very first tale has some connection to the very last. No matter the difference in time or setting, in some way, these stories are just part of one larger tale, and discovering the connections gave me endless amounts of pleasure.
Her voice was a whisper thick as wet wool.
The girl’s stories vary in setting and cast but each paint an incredibly rich environment, peopled by creatures that – no matter how otherworldly – feel utterly vibrant and alive. Among these pages, you meet foxgirls and the Marsh King, Stars and priestesses, a Black Papess and griffin. I would say there are hundreds of side characters but because every single character is given their own voice and gets to tell their own story, they are all protagonists. Some tales are heartbreaking, some end well, most don’t really end at all but leave room for imagination of things to come.
Seeing as there are so many different characters, I am stunned by Valente’s ability to give them each their own voice. While the Prince’s tale follows the tropes of a quest adventure, the Leucrotta’s story is wonderfully humorous and turns these tropes upside down. Depending on whether you are reading a polar bear’s story or that of a magyr (do not call her a mermaid, she will get angry!), their register and vocabulary varies, as does their tone. I find it hard to believe that all of these creatures stem from the mind of one woman.
“[…] mainly I’m King because I said I was, and nobody said any different. But this pier is as good as any throne room, and there are riches in every cage and pot. That’s how kings are made, my brush-tailed girl – they pick a place, shove a stick in it, call themselves King and wait to see if someone gets angry about it.”
And the praise continues. Rarely, if ever, have I read a book with such a diverse cast of characters. They come in all shapes and colors (literally) and from different parts of the world. We meet characters with alabaster skin and hair like gold, a shipful of monsters, a people with skin like onyx, a seafaring satyr the color of trees, a foxgirl whose feet were bound when she was a child… I developed a particularly soft spot for the monsters. The Leucrotta was introduced in a way that led me to expect what the fantasy genre has taught me. Monsters bad, sword-wielding princes good. But even and especially the monsters get a voice in this story and I couldn’t help but fall in love with the Leucrotta and its sense of humor.
“Didn’t your mother teach you to be kind to monsters who completely fail to gobble you up?”
It must also be mentioned that, other than most modern fantasy books, this is a story celebrating women. Whether it is humans or monsters, women are shown in all their facets. If you Bechdel-test this book, I would pass a hundred times over. What I loved most about the women was probably the fact that there is more to them than being a beautiful princess or a goddess or what have you. Some of them are ugly, some of them are old, some are deformed and outcast, some are just plain lost souls, looking for a home.
No one cares for the likes of us freaks, but a whole stinking heap of us never caused the trouble of one Wizard in an ever-damned tower.
This loveletter to storytelling has enchanted me for the better part of a week. Drawing from folklore and mythology, Valente creates her own universe of myth and magic, mixing recognisable elements with more obscure or completely fabricated ones. Her lush, poetic language never fails to draw pictures brimming with life, and if it were for me, the Greek Gods can pack their bags. I’d rather go back to the night garden.
As you may have guessed, like the boy listening to the girl in the garden, I can’t possibly think of stopping now. As full as I am of stories that I will never forget, this is only the beginning…
THE GOOD: Amazing stories told by diverse characters, full of mythology and magic. A complex structure that will keep you on your toes. A world of wonder!
THE BAD: I suppose the structure is not for everyone. You do have to remind yourself whose head you are in whenever you put the book away and pick it back up.
THE VERDICT: This is what fantasy should be. Original, beautifully told stories, that open the readers’ minds and show just what one can do with ones imagination.
RATING: 9,5/10 – Close to perfection
BONUS: The illustrations by Michael Kaluta are gorgeous and I hope to see more of them in the second volume.
SECOND BONUS: If you are a Cat Valente fan, you have surely heard of S.J. Tucker. I bought her album “For the Girl in the Garden” to listen to while reading the book and I highly recommend it to people who enjoy music with their books. Not only do these songs evoke the atmosphere of the stories brilliantly, S.J. Tucker also reads little snippets of the book, incorporates the plot into her lyrics and overall made my reading experience even better.
The Orphan’s Tales
- In the Night Garden
- In the Cities of Coin and Spice