Catherynne M. Valente – In the Cities of Coin and Spice

You know the deal by now. Whatever Cat Valente puts on paper (or a computer screen) I am bound to love. After the amazing Deathless I didn’t think another of her books could get me this emotionally riled up. But The Orphan’s Tales took it to a whole new level. I didn’t just get one heartbreaking story, I got dozens! In this second part of the duology, we get more of the same – brilliant writing, fantastic characters, a structure that makes your brain smoke – but also a little bit more…

cities of coin and spiceIN THE CITIES OF COIN AND SPICE
by Catherynne M. Valente

Published by: Spectra, 2007
ISBN: 9780553384048
Paperback: 516 pages
Series: The Orphan’s Tales #2

My rating: 9/10

First sentence: The paths of the garden were wet with fallen apples and red with their ruptured skin.

Her name and origins are unknown, but the endless tales inked upon this orphan’s eyelids weave a spell over all who listen to her read her secret history. And who can resist the stories she tells? From the Lake of the Dead and the City of Marrow to the artists who remain behind in a ghost city of spice, here are stories of hedgehog warriors and winged skeletons, loyal leopards and sparrow calligraphers. Nothing is too fantastic, anything can happen, but you’ll never guess what comes next in these intimately linked adventures of firebirds and djinn, singing manticores, mutilated unicorns, and women made entirely of glass and gears. Graced with the magical illustrations of Michael Kaluta, In the Cities of Coins and Spice is a book of dreams and wonders unlike any you’ve ever encountered. Open it anywhere and you will fall under its spell. For here the story never ends and the magic is only beginning….

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When In the Night Garden took me onto its long, winding journey, I didn’t think I would fall in love with it as hard as I did. The nameless girl with stories tattooed on her eyelids continues to tell her tales and they, in turn, continue to go deeper and deeper until a tapestry of mythology evolves, and not a single character remains nameless or faceless. Getting into this part was easier because, first of all, I knew what was waiting for me, structurally. I knew that whenever a character would meet another, I would get to hear their story and the stories contained in that story. Secondly, by now I was familiar with a lot of the settings – we return to cities we visited in the first volume, and meeet known characters, much to my delight. In the Night Garden wrapped up its stories neatly, for the most part, but I couldn’t help but wonder whatever happened to the firebird or the goose. Well, we find out here.

If I talk any more about Valente’s gift with words, my readers will run away screaming. But it is true that she magically paints pictures that are so vivid they followed me into my dreams. Within a short paragraph, she breathes so much life into her characters that you feel like you know them, you can understand them, and – most of all – you come to love them. Whether it’s a unicorn (they’re not white, by the way), a spider looking for her vocation, a djinn who is made queen, a girl born from a tea-leaf or a Gaselli who is friends with a manticore, I feel like I’ve met a whole cast of unforgettable characters who each follow their own path. And when their paths intertwine, something beautiful happens.

Saturated with mythology and fairytales, Valente puts a new spin on what we expect. Creatures that we would consider ugly or evil turn out to be the gentlest, kindest characters, unicorns – pure and white and lovely – are drawn to innocence for a very different reason that one may think. My knowledge of mythology is not wide enough to know if all the characters are inspired by folklore or myth, but in the end, it doesn’t matter. The monsters represented here feel entirely original and it was a pleasure to find out an ostensibly evil character’s reasons for doing what they do. There are at least two sides to every story and they all seem to lead back to the Stars, expelled from their home, walking among humans (and monsters), yearning for a place that is lost to them.

What makes this second volume so interesting is not just that Valente delivers more of the brilliance we’ve come to know. It’s that the story is pushed forward, that in the real world, where a girl tells a prince her stories, the story progresses. I will admit I have suspected the twist at the end, but that didn’t make it any less beautiful. What I didn’t expect was how much the prince’s sister Dinarzad grew on me, but then, Valente does that to her readers. Introduce characters that are merely interesting but will steal your heart within a chapter or two.

I cannot recommend these two books enough. Anyone who enjoys stories based around mythology, who likes a wide, diverse range of characters, or someone who has a soft spot in their heart for monsters and outcasts, will find nothing but joy within these many pages. Sure, personal taste dictates that somebody will prefer certain stories to others (Saint Sigrid is still my favorite, although the Gaselli and the Manticore are close seconds) but the overall quality of these tales can’t be disputed. I wish more writers would dare something this intricate, would give their characters so much life. And by now, I have started hoping that Cat Valente will write a lot more – and fast.

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THE GOOD: Vivid settings, beautiful language, full-depth characters, and a magic that connects them all.
THE BAD: If you’ve come this far, the structure probably doesn’t bother you. I wasn’t a huge fan of the hedgehog story but that’s the only “bad” thing I can think of.
THE VERDICT: I have sung with manticores, danced with the Gaselli, opened cages that held vibrant creatures, lost something in the city of Marrow, met a spider seamstress, a firebird’s child, and a girl made of tea. These two little books have sent my head spinning with imagination and wonder. And I never want to let it go.

RATING: 9/10  – Close to perfection

BONUS: Michael Kaluta’s illustrations (while they could be more numerous) were even more gorgeous than in the first part.

SECOND BONUS: I have talked about S.J. Tucker before. After enjoying her album for the first novel in The Orphan’s Tales duology, there was no way I was missing out on the second. This time, the songs offer a wider range of styles and themes, but they fit perfectly with their corresponding stories in the book. Again, we get snippets of text read by S.J. Tucker (that I skipped until I had finished the book – my fear of spoilers was unfounded). Most of all, this music created an added layer of atmosphere. Valente certainly doesn’t need help with that, but listening to the sad, beautiful, wild songs on this album made this a wholly immersive experience.

The Orphan’s Tales:

  1. In the Night Garden
  2. In the Cities of Coin and Spice

4 thoughts on “Catherynne M. Valente – In the Cities of Coin and Spice

  1. Carl V. Anderson says:

    She is a pretty amazing author, that is for sure. I have meant to get to these stories but they remain on the mountainous TBR pile. One of the reasons these books are attractive to me is the stories-within-a-story device, which is one that I generally enjoy. *Sigh*…when will I learn to stop time so I can get more reading done?

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    • Nadine says:

      A time machine would come in pretty handy at times. 🙂
      My only tip is to make sure you have a week or so off before you dive into these books. I did put aside the second part for a while because of holiday preparations and work and I’m sure I missed a few references to characters from the first book. Still, once you start, it’s hard to put down. These books want to be read in one go.

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      • Carl V. Anderson says:

        Good advice! I also need to take the advice I read on Patrick Rothfuss’ blog recently where he talked about how he does not pick up another book until he has finished the one he is reading. I used to be that way, but the world of book blogging somehow turned me into this creature who has multiple reads going at the same time. Gotta stop that and stay focused.

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