The Orphan's Tales: In the Night Garden Paperback – Deckle Edge, Oct 31 2006
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From Publishers Weekly
A lonely girl with a dark tattoo across her eyelids made up of words spelling out countless tales unfolds a fabulous, recursive Arabian Nights-style narrative of stories within stories in this first of a new fantasy series from Valente (The Grass-Cutting Sword). The fantastic tales involve creation myths, shape-changing creatures, true love sought and thwarted, theorems of princely behavior, patricide, sea monsters, kindness and cruelty. As a sainted priestess explains, stories "are like prayers. It does not matter when you begin, or when you end, only that you bend a knee and say the words," and this volume does not so much arrive at a conclusion but stops abruptly, leaving room for endless sequels. Each descriptive phrase and story blossoms into another, creating a lush, hallucinogenic effect.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
*Starred Review* The opening volume of the Orphan's Tales begins in a palace garden, where a girl has been abandoned because of the strange, ink-black stain around her eyes and over her eyelids. Because the sultan and his nobles wish to avoid the problem she presents, she is left to wander the gardens, alone until another child, a boy, comes and speaks to her. She reveals the secret of her ink-stained eyes, that they contain many tales. In return for the boy's company, she tells him stories, beginning with the tale of the prince Leander. Each succeeding story grows from the one before it, characters recounting tales they were told and even weaving them back together. There is an entire mythology in this book, in which the themes of familiar fairy tales are picked apart and rearranged into a new and wonderful whole. The narrative is a nested, many-faceted thing, ever circling back to the girl in the palace garden and the prince she is telling the tales to in a wonderful interpretation of what fairy tales ought to be. The illustrations, by Michael Kaluta, constitute an excellent supplement, reminiscent of illustrations of such fairy-tale books as Andrew Lang's, though Kaluta does no toning down for Victorian sensibilities. Regina Schroeder
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved
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However, I did not stop reading. The book had been recommended strongly by someone I really respect, so I decided that I would give it an honest try. After the irritation, I was interested, and after that I was entranced. By the last few hundred pages of the book, I literally could not put it down. I read it late in 2006, but I would be willing to include it as being among my best reading experiences of the year.
Valente's prose may seem labored and precious at first, but if you give it sufficient time it settles into its own rhythm. Her diction fits beautifully with the structure of her work. Some writers who try the same kind of prose miss any sense of lightness or humor. Valente, by contrast, is as often wickedly funny in her stories as she is full of descriptive symbolism. I liked it every much in the end, and I was left with the strong sense of wanting to read more.
The Orphan's Tales: In the Night Garden is dark fantasy, structured as a series of interlocking stories. It should appeal to both younger and more adult readers although the themes can be quite adult. Highly recommended, particularly if you are fan of darker fantasy.
This is not to say that the tales are dour, Hans Christian Andersen morality plays. Far from it. There is much joy and passion in the stories, but there are many surprises as well.
The Orphan of the title is a girl of noble descent who was born under an unfortunate curse - she is marked in a way that incites fear in the extensive household of the Sultan, and no one will claim her for their own. Eventually abandoned to the garden, she does not die but instead thrives, living there as a sort of spectre until a young son of the royal family stumbles upon her and she begins telling him the tales that are her destiny to tell. The story of a prince's quest is brought short by the witch he encounters, who tells her story to him, which necessarily includes the story of her teacher, and so on, tales within tales like the layers of an onion.
You will recognize the skeletons of some fairy tales beneath Valente's rich layering of interpretation. Others are obscure (the woman has done her homework) or obscured to the point of being completely fresh. There is a feminist twist to the tales, but not the kind of heavy-handed moralizing that frequently burden such retellings. Instead, the layered tales take you deeper and deeper into an amazing world that you really regret leaving upon turning the last page. The one consolation is realizing that this is but the first of four books and you will be able to find your way back to the Orphan and her tales again when the next book is published.
The writing itself is a confection of imagery, rich and sumptuous. It's a book to luxuriate in.
I can't think of a better Christmas present for someone who loves fantasy, particularly since it is illustrated with gorgeous drawings as well.
Go now. Buy. You'll thank me.
There's only one point that I wish to point out: this book has a truly staggering amount of blood in it. Murder, rape, treachery, torture, human experiments, genocide, incest, patricide, even deicide... If an atrocity can be imagined, well, it is here.
I have heard it said that when the likes of Andersen and Grimm first compiled their tales of folklore and fairy tales, they had to first bowdlerize them, "scrub them clean," as it were, to make it palatable for the consumer habits of a rising European middle class. For example, in some earlier versions of Snow White, the young woman's chief antagonist is her mother, not stepmother. The Orphan's Tales is the world unscrubbed.
It's not just that magic must be paid for in blood. Here, magic literally is blood. And no, there is no other way to get blood.
There are, at most, a handful of writers currently working who are as much on love with the English language as Catherynne Valente. Each of her novels is a small jewel for the linguaphile, as much an experience as it is a book. Her early novels tended to run about one hundred fifty pages, and with language that demands lingering over and pondering, one hundred fifty pages seemed just about perfect. Now comes the pair of books known as the Orphan's Tales. The first of them is as long as Valente's first three novels put together (and the second longer); no surprise, then, that I ended up lingering over this book for an entire year. Actually, one day shy, to be precise about it. I can't imagine doing it any other way; this is a book that demands to be lingered over, pondered, enjoyed.
The book is told as a series of nested (very nested) fairytales; there is one large frame, concerning a girl whose body is tattooed with tales and the prince fascinated with her. Within that frame are two large stories the girls tells the prince. Within each of those are dozens of subtales, as characters within the stories tell tales (and characters within those stories... you get the idea).
The most impressive thing about the book by far is that things never get out of hand. If you get the idea of the structure here (the thing it most reminds me of, oddly, is modular bookshelves), you can probably see how easy it could be for a reader who isn't paying attention to lose his place. Despite the complexity, it never happens. Whether this is because I was just paying more attention than usual or whether it's Valente's storytelling skills I don't know. Oh, of course I do. I have the attention span of a whelk. Valente was in control through the entire book. The language is gorgeous, but that's a given with Valente; one expects nothing less. I wondered whether Valente's dense style would scale well to a book three times the length of those I'm used to reading. I shouldn't have worried; as always, this is phenomenal. ****
Orphan's Tales is essentially 113 short stories loosely connected. It is clever in that each new story is told by a person in the preceding one, "I wasn't always this way, once I was a young witch and...." All of the tales come from a powerful imagination and are vividly rendered.
But the connecting threads of this book are loose at best. Each tale is as fantastic as it is brief. You don't spend enough time with any character to really care about them so it felt like flipping through colorful pages of fantasy characters. After a while it's just a blur of color. It almost felt repetitive and I struggled to finish.
There are so many positive reviews here so perhaps I'm the odd man out. But as a lover of fantasy, dark stories, etc. I fully expected to love this. And didn't.