I wonder if Cat Valente is even capable of writing a bad book. It’s getting kind of ridiculous for me to try and write reviews of her stuff. We all know what’s going to happen, anyway. I will gush, I will quote, I will gush about the quotes, and then I’ll tell you how terrible I’ll feel until I can get my hands on the next Valente book. But oh well, each of her books is worth gushing over for different reasons, so I suppose we might as well do it again.
Published by: Subterranean, 2015
Hardcover: 144 pages
My rating: 9/10
First sentence: There’s a ragamuffin city out east, you follow?
“If you go looking for it, just about halfway uptown and halfway downtown, there’s this hotel stuck like a pin all the way through the world. Down inside the Artemisia it’s this mortal coil all over. Earthly delights on every floor.”
The hotel Artemisia sits on a fantastical 72nd Street, in a decade that never was. It is home to a cast of characters, creatures, and creations unlike any other, including especially Zelda Fair, who is perfect at being Zelda, but who longs for something more. The world of this extraordinary novella—a bootlegger’s brew of fairy tales, Jazz Age opulence, and organized crime—is ruled over by the diminutive, eternal, sinister Al. Zelda holds her own against the boss, or so it seems. But when she faces off against him and his besotted employee Frankie in a deadly game that just might change everything, she must bet it all and hope not to lose…
Multiple-award-winning, New York Times’ bestselling author Catherynne M. Valente once again reinvents a classic in Speak Easy, which interprets “The Twelve Dancing Princesses” if Zelda Fitzgerald waltzed in and stole the show. This Prohibition-Era tale will make heads spin and hearts pound. It’s a story as old as time, as effervescent as champagne, and as dark as the devil’s basement on a starless night in the city.
Have you seen The Grand Budapest Hotel? The opening of Cat Valente’s newest novella has a similar feel to it. An unnamed narrator welcomes us into the Roaring Twenties and introduces us to the Hotel Artemisia and some of its inhabitants. Room by room, we find out how half a zoo’s worth of animals ended up in the hotel, how Zelda Fair and her roomates moved in with the already resident pelican, how Al runs the underworld and provides enough booze to keep the entire hotel happy and puking all night, how the rooftop farm makes it possible for people to never go outside and just live in the hotel forever.
In the first few chapters alone, there is so much to discover and the language is so amazing, I just curled up on the couch and soaked it all in. I have come to the conclusion that, while Valente has a trademark lyrical style, she has no trouble whatsoever adapting it. The narration immediately puts you in the time period, the choice of words is exquisite, the dialogue perfectly fitting. You can see the tattered dance shoes and flapper dresses, the bobbed hair and cigarette holders.
“Have you seen Zelda?” he asks.
“Zelda. Zelda Fair. About this high, short black hair, smile like a punch in the gut?”
But Speak Easy is also a heartbreaking story. It starts off as a light, super fun exploration a strangely self-sufficient hotel. Once Zelda – in search of her Goodies, her talent, her one thing that she’s good at – and Frankie, poor bellhop with a secret side-job, are introduced, things get darker. Valente’s love for mythology shines through yet again, and a trip to Artemisia’s basement might well be a trip into the actual underworld. People are what they seem but they are also more than that. And the basement is where they thrive. Zelda’s roomate Ollie can show her talent without hiding behind a pen name, Frankie discovers that he does have great things in him, Zelda can enjoy herself and realise that her Goodies aren’t hiding from her, that she does have talent… there’s booze, there’s sex, there’s dancing all night.
As with most of her books, my number one complaint is that it ends. I fell into its mood right away and wanted to spend more time with the narrator, wanted to ask her about all the other inhabitants of Hotel Artemisia. What about the seals in the fountain? Or the pneumatic tubes? There are entire worlds of intrigues, love affairs, and sinister dealings hiding in there, and we only glimpse some of them. But that’s also one of the book’s qualities. The author doesn’t spell everything out for us, she lets us in on this secret world just a little bit and draw our own conclusions, make up our own side-stories.
Caspar Slake has a three-month limit at the bar. Any longer and you start thinking about a person different. You start thinking of them like they’re yours. You start making plans. He didn’t make the rule. It just is. People are clocks who think they wind themselves.
Zelda may be the main character, but I had just as much fun reading about Slake, Artemisia’s owner, and his wife Pearl. The pelican, Mr. Puss-Boots, has a surprising amount of personality and love for his roomates. Al, master of the basement, is surrounded by mystery and power – I completely understand how people can feel drawn to him. He exudes danger as much as he seems to be a benevolent lord in Artemisia’s very own underworld. I loved every character, no matter how little we see of them, and it’s to Valente’s credit that they came vibrantly alive without a lot of exposition.
I don’t think it’s coincidence that Zelda is called Zelda and Frankie – desperately in love with her – is called Frankie. If you have someone named Al run the underworld, it doesn’t take much to add a “Capone” to his name, and if a guy named Francis writes novels, there’s only a small step to supplying the missing “Fitzgerald”. The epic game of poker played in the basement leads me to believe that Valente had these people in mind when she wrote this story. It made for a great tale and one that twists the knife in your heart at the end, just for good measure. That poker game and its eventual winners are so full of symbols that make a lot of sense when you read up on the Fitzgeralds. It’s really fucking heartbreaking.
As fun as it started, Speak Easy left me half-crying (why does she always do that? I become such a cry-baby when I read Valente books). If you’re invested in Zelda’s dreams – and you will be if you read this – then the ending hurts even more. But other than break my heart again, Valente also reminded me why I love this genre. You can take real-life people and throw them into a world of myth and magic and art, and create something wonderful and new that still feels like coming home. I will definitely put this on my Hugo ballot next year and probably re-read it every weekend until Radiance comes out.
MY RATING: 9/10 – Pretty much perfect