Saturday, May 26, 2012
100 Books #46 - Catherynne Valente's THE FOLDED WORLD
"Stew is better than war, for only one has nice carrots in it."
It should say something that, just days after devouring the first book in this series, I've done the same with the second (I actually finished this on May 23, but was out in the land of little bandwidth with no time to blog). Which is to say that, series title aside, so far the Dirge for Prester John is pretty enjoyable reading.
The Folded World both is and is not a sequel, its conceit being that parts of it were written long before parts of the first book even though the events of the story all take place after The Habitation of the Blessed. Thus we have one of the narrators from the previous book, the blemmye Hagia, writing after she became Prester John's wife and gave birth to their daughter, Sefalet but before the writing she did for the previous book. Further confusing matters, for this book she is serving mostly as scribe for Prester John's other daughter, Anglitora whom he fathered on a crane long before meeting Hagia, and the narration swerves dizzyingly between Anglitora's and Hagia's own without warning, sometimes trading paragraphs as the two of them struggle for control over the story and its telling. It's a real testament to Catherynne Valente's talent that it is always perfectly lucid which of the two is speaking in Hagia's parts of this book.
This time around, Hagia is sharing narrating duties with several others, including a lioness, Vyala, mother of Hagia's lover Hadulph (yes, another lion), whose devotion to Hagia extends to her daughter by Prester John to such a degree that, seeing her unhappy and about to be abandoned by the royal couple's march to war, Hadulph sends the girl to Vyala for care, company, and instruction in love, for Vyala is universally acknowledged to be the best at love (not at sex: at love) and the wisest about it. Her passages are full of lovely and lively explorations and wisdom on that subject, including an inversion of St. Paul's famous homily on love that emphasizes love's cruelty and selfishness and feels just as true as Paul's words.
Poor Sefalet needs Vyala's instruction, for she is deeply afflicted by congenital uniqueness that's a heavy burden for a little girl: her head is entirely featureless, with her eyes on the backs of her hands, and on her palms, both of them, are her two mouths, one of which speaks sweetly and one of which is monstrously cruel. In addition, through the mean mouth, Sefalet makes prophecies that have a habit of coming true. As she observes early in the story, Cassandra had it easy.
But it's Anglitora, Prester John's daughter by the crane, a girl who looks mostly human but who sports a wing where one of her arms should be, who is the real catalyst for this second story. Her arrival in John's kingdom is dramatic: she carries a helmet containing a letter from the emperor in Constantinople, who received Prester John's famous letter (which is mostly a pack of lies even in this world where John's kingdom really exists) and has written him back, begging him to help defend his city from the invading Muslims.
Further complicating the book is its third narrator, John Mandeville -- yes, that John -- another famous liar, whose bullshit accounts of his explorations nonetheless, in our world, inspired the likes of Christopher Columbus. In the world of the Dirge for Prester John, he comes to John's world, but he lands among the peoples who dwell on the other side of the great diamond wall built by Alexander the Great to protect what would one day become John's kingdom from all the demons out there. Said demons being, of course, the peoples who meet John Mandeville and tell him horror stories of those other demons on the other side of the wall. Of course.
And yet further complicating matters is that once again all of this is framed in the account of a monk copying these stories out of another book-fruit, but it's a different monk because the monk who raced against rot in The Habitation of the Blessed wound up eating one of his rotten books and is now incapacitated.
Got all that? And I haven't even gotten to the war. For of course there is war, and of course it does not have nice carrots in it.
Too, these books would argue that stew is also better than organized religion, which comes in for a lot of questioning, disputing and gentle satire as the fabulous creatures of Pentexore follow their lottery-annointed king into a holy war they really don't understand. A scene amidst a great hedge of Christian and Muslim knights that grew from a bunch of corpses that washed up on a beach comes to mind. They are planted firmly in Pentexore's magical soil, these soldier-trees, but they still want to fight each other over points of doctrine.
The war itself is full of surprises and sadness even as the story builds to a wholly different and only sort of foreshadowed conclusion that has nothing to do with that war and everything to do with the ancient history of Pentexore.
There is a whole lot of bang for my bucks in Ms. Valente's books. I see from her blog that she and her publisher have parted ways. Here's hoping she gets a move on and joins the brave new world of self-publishing. She's certainly talented enough.
More soon, please!