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

Catherynne M. Valente – In the Night Garden

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.

night gardenIN THE NIGHT GARDEN
by Catherynne M. Valente

Illustrated by: Michael Kaluta
Published by: Spectra, 2006
ISBN: 0553384031
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.
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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.

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The Orphan’s Tales

  1. In the Night Gardenorphans tales
  2. In the Cities of Coin and Spice

Second opinions: