Catherynne M. Valente’s The Orphan’s Tales: In the Night Garden, is the first in a duology (two book series) about a strange girl with tattooed eyes who lives in a palace garden and spins stories for a bored prince. And that’s just the outermost frame story! I added the novel to my reading list this semester because I’m interested in studying fairy tales and folklore for what they can teach me about creating monsters.
In The Orphan’s Tales, strange and disturbing creatures abound. The reader never quite knows what will come next because Valente does a good job of blending bits and pieces of different cultures and fairy tales into one fantasy world. There are Star creatures, ice bears turned into men, a skin peddler, beast-maidens and frightening moon spirits who reanimate dead bodies. The author is vague enough in her explanation of things, that it seems credible that all these creatures could be cohabitating in the same realm.
Another thing that Valente’s novel does well is subvert the reader’s expectations in terms of what it means to be monstrous. In “The Book of the Steppe”, there is a common theme that being a “monster”—something ugly, deformed, or animal—gives you freedom and power. We see it again and again with characters like Knife, Aerie, and Beast. Knife cuts her own flesh, deforming her face to avoid being forced into sexual slavery. Knife’s grandmother, Bent-Bow, tells her “It is good you ruined your face, because it brought you to me, but also because beautiful women rarely work strong magic.” Her scars protect her from being targeted by conquering soldiers and help her begin her destiny as a witch of grass and leaves. Knife’s daughter Aerie is transformed into a gosling in order to help her escape the prison where she is born. Traditionally in fairy tales, characters are turned into animals as part of a punishment or curse, as in the Frog Prince or Beast from Beauty and the Beast. However, in Valente’s story, becoming an animal helps protect Aerie from the King and certain death. And finally, there is the ultimate subversion: the Leucrotta. Known simply as Beast, the Leucrotta is a creature described by several characters as a hideous, man-killing monster with twisted horns that can skewer a Prince. However, when we finally meet Beast, he is perhaps the most civilized and compassionate of all the characters. Beast lives in the swamp marsh as the Marsh King’s courtier. He fights princes and duke’s sons, but only as a matter of honor when called out. He finds beauty in ugly, frightening things, like Knife’s ruined face and the Beast-Maiden’s unnatural combination of parts. But the most unexpected thing about Beast is his sense of honor. Knights and Princes abound in these stories, but Beast seems to be the most honorable character, stripping off his skin and handing it over to Leander without protest because he promised to yield it to Knife whenever she asked. The manner of Valente’s interwoven stories is very engaging, but for me the best part of the novel is her “monsters” who seem more relatable than the human characters.
One of the things I didn’t like about Valente’s novel was that there was a distracting amount of metaphoric language, especially in the first “book” of the novel. Valente was trying to imitate the style of oral storytelling, but the sheer number of similes and metaphors were distracting. Also, it made all of the storytellers (for the novel is structured as a story within a story within a story, etc.) sound like they were using the same voice (which, they were in a way because the reader often forgets the stories are being told through the lens of the orphan girl). However, for me, the metaphoric language slowed the pace and often pulled me out.
Another aspect of the novel that I can admire, but I didn’t enjoy as a reader, was the fact that the story frames or layers ran so deep that I couldn’t put the book down. It’s not that I found the story so engrossing I would lose sleep, but I knew that if I put the book down, I would not be able to remember whose point of view I was in when I returned or where I was in the events of the story. I was forced to spend five to ten minutes re-reading in order to orient myself again. I don’t think this is what Valente intended. Again, this in an entirely personal preference, but I thought the story had too many layers/frames. Some of the points of view I could have done without, instead having a more central character relate the needed information. And when I reached the end of the novel and the “Book of the Sea” (which I thought was the stronger of the two stories), I felt satisfied with the ending. I don’t feel the urge to read the second installment of The Orphan’s Tales. I think this is partly because I found the structure of the novel overly complex and convoluted, but also, I didn’t care enough about the characters in the original frame story. Valente didn’t make me feel invested in the orphan girl, the prince, or his sister. I could have read Valente’s novel as a series of linked fairy tales and done without the orphan girl completely.
Agree? Disagree? Have a book to recommend? Comment below!