I read a lot of fantasy as a kid. A lot a lot. Even when I basically stopped leisure reading in college, fantasy literature was never far from my mind, and now that I’ve started up again, my “books to read” list is split pretty evenly between fantasy novels and everything else. I have fond memories of many of these books, but I’d be hesitant to read most of them again. As I’ve read more and more, my tastes have sharpened — I’ve become able to appreciate things I couldn’t before, but there are also things that bother me now in narrative fiction that I used to pass by with blithe indifference. Some books, however cherished in my memory, come with big, stark signs saying “do not revisit these waters lest you rend the glowing shroud of nostalgia asunder”. (My subconscious is kind of wordy.)
The Orphan’s Tales, by Catherynne M Valente, is not one of those books*. From the day I finished it, I knew I would be coming back to it again someday, tho I’m not sure I anticipated that “someday” would be more than half a decade in the future. For years, it was my go-to hands-down answer for my favorite book, and it never fell much further than “I really enjoyed this book when I read it, but that was before I became aware of feminism and issues of representation in literature, so I can’t say how well it holds up on that front.”. (More on this below.) It’s tempting to say that I like it so much because it hits basically all of my favorite literary devices, but it would probably be considerably more accurate to say that all of my favorite literary devices are things that this book does.
The premise is simple: In a garden in the Sultan’s palace, there is a girl whose eyes are surrounded by dense, minuscule writing, writing that contains fantastical tales of every kind. With a little coaxing, she begins telling them to a boy in the Sultan’s household. In the first, a Prince sets out on a Quest, but he doesn’t make it very far before running into trouble. As part of the trouble in question, a Witch finds it necessary to enlighten him about some of the things that have been going on outside his precious castle walls. She does this by telling him a story. Not too far into that story, one of the characters is again in need of enlightening, and gets another inset story in turn. And so it goes for hundreds of pages of intricately interwoven tales. The narrative frame pops up and down this nested hierarchy of tales-within-tales, zooming back and forth across thousands of years of the history of this world. The pedestrian figures of one tale become legendary giants in the next, convoluted escapades become casual asides, timeless situations turn out to have rather prosaic, definable beginnings. Eventually these interconnections reach a critical mass and the book rushes to its heady end in a breathtaking display of narrative brilliance.
Such authorial virtuosity alone would be enough to put it high on my list of favorite books, but it’s the content of the tales that really puts it over the top. The first time I read it, I was attracted to its interaction with folktales and fairy stories. It draws from much further afield than the central Europe of the Brothers Grimm, but the cores of many of the densely nested stories can be traced to much older works, ones that are familiar to the point of being archetypal. Instead of a straightforward presentation, however, they are warped and refracted, remixed and stitched together in new and ever-shifting combinations. You’re pretty sure you know what kind of story you’re in (tho there are times where even that expectation can blow up in your face), but the familiar figures refuse to stay put and play their expected roles. Valente taps into the deep resonance of these stories without tipping her hand about the ultimate resolution of the plot.
The second time I read it, I read it for the heartbreak.
These stories take place in an achingly broken world. Things have been going wrong for a very long time, and they show little sign of slowing up. It is not a world in which justice always prevails and the truth wins out. Evil sometimes carries the day, both the sweeping, deeply villainous kind and the small, petty, all-too-human kind that isn’t out to take over the world, but just wants to make life a little more comfortable with a selfish disregard for how that affects the lives of others. And yet, there is still hope. Despite the pain, the anguish that comes from wrongs that can never be fully righted, there is still hope that a better world is possible. Getting there might require unthinkable sacrifice, and the victory may well feel hollow to those who achieve it by the time they do, but there is still a firm conviction that honesty, integrity, and righteousness can carry the day in the end.
It is, in many ways, a book about healing, about finding the broken places long after destruction has been wrought and doing what can be done to smooth the jagged edges, even if not to render things fully whole again, at least to offer some measure of closure. There are many works out there that culminate in violent, traumatic events without dwelling on their consequences — more often than not The Orphan’s Tales takes such events as beginnings, following out the fractured, painstaking path of piecing together a life in their aftermath. (With some characters, needless to say, emerging less scathed than others. Even in extremis, Valente does not resort to cookie-cutter sameness.)**
This focus on the aftermath is what makes the book work. It presents a vast, sprawling, astonishingly detailed world, and it would be easy for the worldbuilding to run away with the plot, bogging us down in detailed minutiae while leaving the characters to shrivel into dust. But instead, Valente manages to hold close to moments of tenderness and intimacy — we still get the rich tapestry of details that makes a world feel real, but it’s wrapped lovingly as a blanket around the people and creatures that populate it, the real focal points of the goings-on.
And it really is a world. Often, high fantasy of this kind is set in a generic alternate universe version of Medieval central Europe (or a minimally-informed approximation thereof), and after a time this gets rather tiresome. The Orphan’s Tales gives us, to be sure, regions that seem solidly European (tho thankfully not all pseudo-Germanic. The warmth of southern Italy shows up, as does the frigid tundra of Finland and beyond), but the full weight of the stories center around regions more analogous to the Middle East in the golden era of Islamic scholarship — the center point from which distance is measured*** is much closer to our Baghdad than Berlin. (Tho, of course, this being a fantasy world, exact equivalents are not always easy to pin down.) If the narrative works to destabilize familiar folktale tropes, the setting works to dethrone the Western assumption that high fantasy means pseudo-Europe unless there’s a “reason” to set it somewhere else.
It’s less diverse on the sexuality front than the racial one. There are several characters — entire species, even — that are canonically genderless, but their manifestations tend to be solidly and traditionally gendered, and the romantic pairings are pretty solidly heterosexual. Normally this would bother me, but here genuine romance is almost an afterthought. Family-centric stories tend to revolve around sibling relations or parent-child strife, and the strongest, most searing relationships, the ones most central to the story, the ones I feel most invested in and am most upset about the prospect of being ruined, tend to be platonic friendships of all sorts. It is very much a book that celebrates friendship (if that’s even a strong enough word for the bonds involved) over romance. Indeed, there are several instances where the overplayed “male hero sets out on a Quest to secure a female trophy spouse” is brutally deconstructed. This is not a book to turn to for dating inspiration. (There are, again, numerous instances of coercion and sexual violence that are central to their respective plots, but I consider such storylines a different category than a consensual romantic plot. “X is upset because they’re being forced into a relationship with Y” is very different than “X is upset because they can’t be in a relationship with Y despite really wanting to”, regardless of the genders involved.)
I don’t want to leave you with the impression that it’s all dark grimness, tho! The richness and depth of the world seeps into Valente’s prose at every turn, suffusing it with a great and resounding joy of invention. She is a clever writer, but also a witty one, and there are countless moments where characters are given a gentle ribbing, or even a healthy dose of gleeful snark. The tenderness, too, begets light: There are monsters out there in many guises, but there is the thrill of discovery too; there is painful healing, but there is also redemption. It is not a book that confines itself to one narrow slice of the emotional landscape; it presents and examines every aspect of being alive.
In some ways, that could even be a fitting tagline for the book. The Orphan’s Tales: Come for the magyrs and manticores, stay for the humanity. Come for the dazzling display of invention, stay for the richness, the depth, the warmth. Come for the world, stay for the heart.
*I always feel a little unsure about how to refer to it. On the one hand, it’s published in two volumes that each have their own title (In the Night Garden and In the Cities of Coin and Spice), but they’re not self-contained — there’s no story that’s complete at the end of In the Night Garden in the way that you would expect from the first book in a multi-book series. It really is one book that happens to be published in two volumes, much like The Lord of the Rings. Language is swimmy and words are hard.
**I’m including this as much as a warning as as a review. There’s a lot of violence in this book, ranging from physical to sexual to political. Before re-reading it, I would’ve been quite happy to describe this book as being firmly in the Young Adult subsection of fantasy literature, but there are many passages that are grim enough to give me pause on doing so now. Then again, many teenagers do lead lives that are full of violence and hardship, so the grimness alone is probably not enough to disqualify it. Genre is also hard.
***The distances involved can be considerable. I’m not being hyperbolic when I say that Valente conjures up an entire world. Traveling from the polar icefields to the equatorial deserts isn’t a matter of a few days quickly elided, it takes months, and the maps are often faulty or nonexistent.