Friday, October 1, 2010

The Orphan's Tales: In the Night Garden by Catherynne M. Valente

After much thought and the advice of my audience (all two of you) I have decided to offer this disclaimer. Some of you may find the review among my old stuff. Some of you may be shocked at my thoughts, and at the tag cloud. Some of you may think "(they're) ignorant, backwards, and sexist!" Well, at the time, I was. Sorta. There were a lot of things going on in my life, and while that is no excuse for what I said, I refuse to delete this or pretend it doesn't exist. This disclaimer is to tell you all that it is a reflection of who I was, not who I am. A lot can change in a year or six. In some ways, I have. In some, I haven't. I am not, however, the angry, hurt, and disappointed person who wrote this review six years ago. Even if my repeated attempts to read Catherynne M. Valente have done nothing to endear me to her. 

 "Now, why do you want to kill Beast? He's not borrowed your sword and refused to return it..."
- The Marsh King 

      When I was younger, one of the first books my father ever read to me at night was The Arabian Nights. I loved it. I fell in love with the stories of Solomon's Bottle, and Aladdin, and all of that. There was a certain element of discovery to the whole thing, a vivid world where pretty much anything could and did happen, all in a far off land. I've always liked fairy tales, and even "grown-up" versions of fairy tales, like the excellent Fables, and One for the Morning Glory. So it would stand to reason that a book advertised with the line "A book of wonders for grown-up readers" would capture my attention. And it didn't.
         In the Night Garden is a book of stories within stories, each one feeding into the next. The framing device is that there is a little girl with black marks around her eyes who many think to be a demon in the Sultan's garden. At night, a little boy, a prince of the Sultanate, sneaks out to her and finds that the marks are actually densely-written words piled one upon the other until there is nothing but black. And the little girl can read these strange marks aloud. She begins to tell him the stories and he begins to listen, spinning vivid stories of battles at sea, talking herons, and sentient stars. Each one leading into and out of the next, weaving together into one work.
        Oh, the visuals are vivid, to be sure. And the characters all seem to be taken from the classic fairy-tale types. But this is not a particularly well-done book, in my opinion. Where most books of they type would begin one story, then maybe have a story inside that story, both those stories would be finished fairly early in. Catherynne M. Valente, on the other hand, barely finishes anything. The first story within the overall framing device, "The Tale of the Prince and the Goose", goes on for almost a quarter of the book. Now, granted, all of these stories tie into each other and into the overarching storyline, but none of them seem to have any cohesion. The link between the varying stories is tenuous at best, though they do call back to the previous ones, and overall, it's an interesting way to set up a book. It just takes quite a while to conclude each story, as each nested tale becomes more and more regressive. It seems like every individual character has their own story, and while I agree all of them should be told, the varying quality and the inability of the main story to go anywhere while the other stories are unfolding gives one a sense of frustration. The best sequences are when the stories are quick and self-contained, such as the bits with the Marsh King. Otherwise, none of it really goes anywhere and it just gets frustrating.
          The other main problem I have with the book is sexism. Men are not portrayed sympathetically. Those who are are either inhuman, in the case of the bear, the Beast, and the Marsh King, or in the thrall of a woman, as in the case of the young boy in the framing device, the prince in the prince story, and others. But the majority of the men are portrayed as decadent asshats who wouldn't know the proper way to do things if it bit them in the arse. And it's to this I object. Look, I know there's been a load of bad mojo over the centuries between the sexes, but we should acknowledge that we're all human. No, we don't always have the same thought patterns, but that really shouldn't matter. I know men who think in a so-called feminine manner, and I know women who are repulsive, closed-minded asshats. People, in the immortal words of Depeche Mode, are people. Not necessarily men or women, but people. And should be treated with the respect that human beings deserve, not turned into flighty nothings or violent idiots. 
            I honestly do wish I could have recommended the book to you. It's got lovely illustrations, and a very vivid sense of itself. But the flaws in characterization and the annoying plotting bring me down for the most part, and I can't really recommend it because of those things. Chances are, you may like this more than me. I don't know. But I can't recommend it.

Next week: The Chronicles of Master Li and Number Ten Ox by Barry Hughart.

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