Volume 1: In the Night Garden; New York: Bantam Spectra 2006; $16.00 tpb; 483 pages
Volume 2: In the Cities of Coin and Spice; New York: Bantam Spectra 2007; $16.00 tpb; 516 pages
Catherynne Valente’s The Orphan’s Tales is a two-volume, richly imagined fairy tale, a deeply connected duology. When I began reading In the Night Garden, its plot structure boggled my mind, conjuring an image of a painting which includes a painting of itself within, which of course would have another duplicated painting within that. While the eye wouldn’t see it, the mind conceives ever tinier paintings being reproduced microscopically ad infinitum. The stories that build into In the Night Garden and its companion volume, In the Cities of Coin and Spice, have each literary painting change to tell a new tale connected both to the previous one and to the later tales to come, all interconnected like strange Russian stacking dolls but each one unique within the other and augmenting each other.
These are not tales merely to skim; the reader is asked to watch the storylines for the threads that connect them like an intricately woven tapestry. When I finished In the Night Garden in 2006 and expressed both my amazement and willingness to read the second volume and possibly do a double review, Valente gave me an advanced reading copy of In the Cities of Coin and Spice. I thanked her, but other obligations came up, and I put the books and my dual review project aside.
Then on July 10, 2009, I believe at a Readercon in Massachusetts, Valente spoke on “How I wrote The Orphan’s Tales.” I attended, taking notes. Here are some highlights.
She started writing the story at age 22 in Newport, Rhode Island, the week after she finished writing her first novel, The Labyrinth, and she wrote it as a Christmas gift for her niece, Sarah. She thought it would be twenty pages long, but it kept going. Since it was longer, she put it in “Diaryland,” a blogging service, treating it as “Scheherazade at Diaryland.”
Valente recalled her grandmother reading her the Bible by day and The Arabian Nights at night, and as she wrote The Orphan’s Tales, which took her until her mid-twenties to complete, she took the concept of the connected stories of The Arabian Nights to the next narrative level.
Valente left grad school to go to Japan with her husband at that time. Isolated, she wrote In the Night Garden there, finishing it in Japan under its original title, The Book of the Garden. When it was accepted at Bantam, she started editing it, including removing a plotline involving an ice dragon.
She offered some insights on her creative habits. Though attached to her books while composing them, she lets go when editing them and works for the best outcome. She doesn’t outline and doesn’t know what the end will be until she gets to it. (She said there is a Wikipedia page outlining the books, but I suggest reading them freshly from the start.)
The Orphan’s Tales reflected her life. She lived “in a dark house, not a soul around” while previously she had been “surrounded by this amazing tribe of people.” Of the characters, the lamia and the selkie were added in later. She chose to add both as the lamia gave St. Sigrid a “retroactive origin story” and the satyr and the selkie story reflected and was inspired by her second fiancé. She finished the tales in Cleveland; In the Cities of Coin and Spice was written in Starbucks next to her fiancé’s office.
Valente said she learned much of how to write a novel from In the Night Garden. Of the plot structure, she said, “Nesting was an amazing experiment in exposition, framed narratives,” which technique she highly recommends. She mentioned both The Canterbury Tales and The Arabian Nights. “It’s really fun to put a medieval turn on modern literature, to take non–fairy tale ideas and fit them into fairy tales.” She described In the Night Garden as a much more traditional fairy tale, mentioning she also found it hard to title her books. One original title was “The Daughter’s Tale,” but her editor made her change it.
She discussed In the Cities of Coin and Spice, which I found had much darker tales though still connected with the first volume: “Two kids get wrapped up in something so horrible, I couldn’t see how they wouldn’t develop into warped adults. Yet in fairy tales, the characters live through it and defeat it.” So she started the second book with the most horrendous motif: coins made out of children’s bones. And then she had to go through the catharsis to resolution.
Beyond the insights of Valente’s 2009 talk, reading The Orphan’s Tales was a unique literary adventure. Both books are divided into two sections: “The Book of the Steppe” and “The Book of the Sea” in In the Night Garden, and “The Book of the Storm” and “The Book of the Scald” in In the Cities of Coin and Spice. (For brevity, identifying excerpts and page numbers included in this review will use the initials NG and CCS for the first and second volumes.)
In the Night Garden begins with the overall framing story as we encounter the orphan girl and her strange birthmark: “her eyelids and the flesh around her eyes were stained a deep indigo-black, like ink pooled in china pots.” She lives “abandoned to wander the Garden around the many-towered Palace” (NG 3). She is feared by the court and believed to be a demon. When the young prince ignores rumors and befriends her, she explains to him that on the seventh day of her seventh month of life, a spirit touched her face and left spells and tales upon her eyelids, “the words of the river and the marsh, the lake and the wind,” that contain “a great magic, and when the tales are all read out,” the spirit will return to judge her. The prince, the sultan’s heir, asks the girl to read him one of the stories, and so the tales begin.
She has read them from a cast-off bronze mirror or the reflections in the Garden’s pool, and now, sitting in a hiding place, she begins the tale of a restless prince named Leander who kills a goose—really an enchanted maiden—near a hut in a meadow. Her aged and raging mother attacks the prince, cutting off two of his fingers, and he pleads for his life, saying he will be her servant and take the bird-maiden’s place. She agrees and tells him her own tale: how as a young girl called Knife from a tribe of horse riders she lived on the steppes until she was captured by the King’s army. Knife disfigures her own face to spite her captor’s lust. Thrown into a dank prison, she discovers her Grandmother, Bent-Bow, also there. Bent-Bow then tells Knife of her apprenticeship in the spiritual world of their people, of the living stars in the sky. One is in the shape of a great Black Mare. Bent-Bow is taken to a sacred cave to undergo initiation, and she meets and strokes the Black Mare who bites her, and then she meets a fox who attends to Bent-Bow’s injury. She treats him petulantly, and he upbraids her:
“I have wasted half of your time already, idiot girl.” His eyes glazed over, retreating into ritual. “But you will not pass your tests, so it hardly matters. Go further in, filth-child, into the second chamber, which is the Wolf Cave, and from there to the Cave of the Seven Sleepers. There lies your test. Pass these chambers and emerge a woman. Or die within them. Remember, pain is not a test. Knowledge is not enough. Many have gone before you, little one, and none have ever spoken of their trials. It is forbidden. You may take nothing but your own body; your pack must stay here. Go, with the blessing of the Mare, and acquit yourself as well as a brat like you can.” (NG 37)
In the Wolf Cave, she is transformed into a gray wolf and meets three other wolves—Star Wolves, children of the Black Mare, the stars who came to Earth and became lost. They tell her how in the first days their feet burned the grass they stepped on, but either the grass got stronger or the Star Wolves weaker, and they left only scorch marks: “Black and ugly, yes, but there were no more holocausts in our tracks, and we began to explore the world that the Mare had left for us when she left the sky” (NG 43–44).
The light from the fallen stars takes on the shapes of people, animals, and plants, and even stone-stars like the Manikarnika:
The Manikarnika were seven sisters, and when they were gnawed from the flesh of the Mare, they were stones. Jade and Granite and Opal, Garnet and Shale and Iron Ore and little Diamond, pale as a milk-soaked paw. (NG 45)
New stories are interspersed in the narrative, revealing the lives and deaths of the stars, of Bent-Bow and of her granddaughter Knife. They are gently interrupted at intervals by the tale of the orphan girl and young prince in the Palace Garden. He brings her food each night as he steals away into the Garden for their story-telling rendezvous.
The prince’s older sister, Dinarzad, catches him “consorting with the demon” and drags him away from the weeping orphan, who flees from them. But the children meet again in a safer hiding place where she continues her tales.
Prince Leander, who killed the goose-girl, tells Knife that his father killed his mother when he was a baby, repeating the tale his nursemaid told him of the King’s jealousy and rage and his mother’s murder. Knife tells him of giving birth to a daughter in the prison cells of that king, naming the baby Aerie, and how her grandmother Bent-Bow filled the newborn babe with the light of the stars gained in her cave initiation:
Slowly, Aerie changed. Her feet warped with moon-colored light and seemed to melt, her arms flattened like sheets of paper without ink. Feathers grew like silkened hair on her body, first the curling down and then the strong gray feathers of flight, tipped black at the edges, the color of silver thread spinning on a crystal wheel. Her mouth, silent, as if in wonder herself, bent into a graceful beak, which snapped in a kind of awe at the empty air. (NG 78)
They carry Aerie, now a gosling, to the barred window and squeeze her through the gap, hoping a flock of geese will care for her. This of course was Knife’s goose-girl. Prince Leander asks how he might restore the dead girl to life. That begins the tale of the Leucrotta, which in turn leads to the tale of the Tavern-Keeper, which in turn tells the tale of the bears and the Harpoon-Star and the Heron. You meet the Beast-Maiden, who once was her stepmother’s favorite, once beautiful but quick and clever as well until the local wizard took her as his apprentice.
Dinarzad again catches the prince returning from listening in the Garden to the orphan’s tales. She locks him in a small tower room, but the orphan climbs the ivy and nettles that clothe the tower and pulls herself onto the sill, bravely continuing her stories and their friendship. She tells him many other stories: of the firebird who must steal cherries from Ravhija and her fabulous orchards, of centaurs that rule and race.
Part Two, “The Book of the Sea,” begins with a pale girl named Snow, who once lived in the hot climate of Ajanabh but moved with her parents to cold Muireann. When her parents die, Snow’s hair turns white. She is aided by a woman named Sigrid, a net weaver, who tells Snow of her childhood when three hooded monks visited her home; under their cowls, they have the heads of dogs:
“We’re not werewolves, love, if that’s what you’re thinking,” the red dog chuckled. “Cynocephaloi, dog-heads. Entirely different.”
“Vegetarian, for one thing,” said the white one, gesturing at his plate, where the pink fox meat lay untouched. My mother apologized profusely, deathly afraid that she had polluted them—some number of my sisters had entered the priesthood, and Mother was ever sensitive to religious niceties. The middle one, clearly a pack leader of sorts, looked up with his liquid eyes and reassured her. (NG 241)
Sigrid is then told the tale of the City of Al-A-Nur, seat of the Twelve Towers, each housing a specific religious order, the city presided over by a beloved Papess. More stories follow: tales of a Black Papess, a usurper to that throne, strange creatures called the Yi who can take on the form of those dead, and the quest of the Cynocephaloi to kill the Black Papess.
Sigrid eventually goes to Al-A-Nur and enters the Tower of Saint Sigrid, an order of women seafarers who all take the name of their saint, which naturally leads to the Tale of Saint Sigrid. Born in Ajanabh with the curious deformity of three breasts, at sixteen Sigrid is kidnapped by pirate women and taken aboard The Maidenhead, a ship that literally grew from a tree in a wood. She likes life at sea with Tomomo, the fox-woman captain who crews the ship with only women, including a satyr named Eshkol. Eshkol introduces Sigrid to their passenger, Oluwakim, the king of the Arimaspian Oculos, who have chartered The Maidenhead to hunt a legendary griffin. This leads to the tale of Chayim, a Monopod.
When Chayim’s beloved Tova dies and her body is taken over by a Yi, he consults with the Anchorite, a holy woman whose mouth is in her belly. She tells him how to kill a Yi: pierce it through the eye with a griffin’s golden talon.
As The Maidenhead sails to the Boiling Sea to hunt the griffin, Eshkol tells Sigrid her own tale, the Tale of the Satyr and the Selkie, how she lived in the forest and met Ghassen, the skin-peddler. He tempts her with a rubbery gray skin and offers to trade it for a strip or two of bark from Grandfather Yew, a tree. Later, a young man named Shroud approaches Eshkol, asking her for the skin, for he is a selkie whose skin was stolen by the peddler. But Eshkol tells him he must stay with her as her lover until he can get his skin back. The two fall in love, together for seven years and seven days, when Eshkol finally gives Shroud his skin back and he leaves. Eventually Eshkol leaves, too, wandering until she signs on as a crew member to sail on The Maidenhead.
All of these stories swell with plots interweaving and resolving as In the Night Garden heads toward a conclusion.
The framing story of the orphan and her prince concludes as the girl finishes both the tales of the steppe and the sea. She tells him she will tell him another tale, “even more strange and wonderful tomorrow, if you return to the Garden to the night, and to me....” They are unaware that his sister, Dinarzad, has been listening as well, tears in her eyes.
As the second volume, In the Cities of Coin and Spice, begins its first part (“The Book of the Storm”), the orphan studies a palace window where Dinarzad sits, a dozen maids dressing her hair. She is to be wed and wishes to be married in the Garden where a copse of chestnuts will be lashed together to resemble a small chapel. The prince appears in the Garden, dressed for the feast with a thin band of porphyry around his wrist, signaling him as heir to the Sultanate.
The orphan tells of a young man named Seven with a missing arm paying a ferryman with an odd coin to pole him across the lake to an island. The ferryman, Idyll, asks where he got the coin, a dhheiba, made of children’s bones. Seven tells of his enslavement with other abandoned children, including a girl named Oubliette, in the city of Marrow. The city is dying, and the children are forced to work in the mint that makes coins from their bones.
The prince tells the orphan girl that he doesn’t like this tale. She tells him she can’t change what is written on her skin:
“If I had not these marks on me, if I were not a raccoon-demon scampering over a Garden rich in scraps, I might have been called Dinarzad and had pearls strung onto my hair, and married a man who owned golden roosters. It is very strange to think about.”
The boy furrowed his clear brow.
“I do not think you would like the man with the roosters.”
The girl grinned like a hare who knows it has escaped. “I am not a fool. Most of the time, I am glad not to be called Dinarzad. But the cold is sometimes like dying, and then I think it would not be so bad.”
The boy started as though he were a young cat seizing upon a mouse for the first time. “What is your name, my friend? I am ashamed I did not ask it before.”
The girl looked down toward the moss and her freezing hand on it like a blight. She made her face very still, still as water, still as stars, so that he would not see her bitterness, hard as hawthorn bark. “How should I know my name? Who was there to call me so, to call me anything but demon, urchin, raccoon? If I have a name, I do not own it—someone else must have folded it away in some strange purse, and my eyes will never see it.” (CCS 21–22)
In the Cities of Coin and Spice projects a much darker atmosphere as the orphan’s stories continue, showing violence and sacrifice. Seven and Oubliette comfort each other, cuddling for warmth at night, and he discovers she is a Huldra, half-girl, half-heifer with a long, thick tail. Oubliette then begins her tale of a golden ball, of the miller’s boy who stole a kiss from her, of a hedgehog named Ciriaco who curls himself into her golden ball, who then tells his tale and those of other characters within it, including a king who recruits soldiers from the countryside, including a disguised woman.
The orphan girl pauses as the prince recalls the Sultan recruiting such soldiers and how fine they look in their uniforms and how his tutor is from a conquered land but is happy in the Palace now. The girl admits that she sometimes watches the officers:
“They are handsome, and so tall. I did not think boys could grow to be so tall. The helmets blind me in their rows.”
“One day I will wear one, and a long, curving sword besides, and no one will bring roosters for me.”
The two children were quiet for a moment, and the dull disk of the sun cast fitful shadows on the stones, like hands which cannot quite grasp. The girl watched the boy play with his purple bracelet, watched him avoid her eyes. (CCS 60)
Ciriaco the hedgehog tells Oubliette to marry him, and when she refuses he calls other hedgehogs. They secure her hair firmly to the earth with their quills and build a house of sod, grass, and flowers around her, closing her within it until only her eyes and mouth are visible.
The story then backtracks to Seven and Oubliette in the city of Marrow. They have learned the truth about the dhheiba, the new coins they press at the mint in Marrow. To distract Seven, Oubliette tells of her escape from the hedgehogs with the help of a unicorn, who then tells its story and that of a boy from a family of poisoners.
Seven and Oubliette contrive an escape from Marrow, the cost of which is one of Seven’s arms. They meet a cart on the road drawn by Taglio,
a lithe man clothed all in green—hose, doublet, fetching little cape and hat, all greener than apple skin. He had hair the color of egg yolks that stuck out from under his cap and a thin, affable face. His feet, from the knees down, were the spindle-swift legs of a dun brown gazelle, and his green hose ended just before the fur in a brass buckle, old enough to have gone slightly green itself. Oubliette and I stared, our mouths gaping. (CCS 109)
Within the cart is a Manticore, Grotteschi the Red, “actress, beast, mezzo-soprano,” the other half of this entertaining duo. Seven and Oubliette travel with them, hearing their stories and other tales stemming from them, leading to Zmeya, a Snake-Star in the guise of a beautiful queen. Eventually Oubliette leaves them, seeking the dead Zmeya, and in turn Seven seeks Oubliette, knowing she is on the island, having followed the Snake-Star there.
We meet other wonderful characters telling marvelous tales too many to put into one review. The Kappa, turtle-like creatures, create a rose that will never die or wilt, that loses only one petal in a century, that will last until all the glass in the world turns back to sand. A harpy who is a professional mourner must seek out the beak of a hoopoe, a necessary part of her trade, but the hoopoe must be dying before she gives up her beak willingly.
Seven finds Oubliette on the island as well as the pregnant Snake-Star. Oubliette had sacrificed her Huldra’s tail for passage to the island and now she, Seven, and others watch over Zmeya.
Back in the Garden, the orphan asks the prince: “When I finish the tales, when my eyelids have poured out all their ink into your hands and I have nothing left for myself, will you run back to the Palace like a good prince and leave me to my fate, just as Hind left the beast who loved her?” (CCS 234) The boy answers he would care for her for all of his reign and “someday there would be an old, white-haired man with green apples and roast dove in his napkin, sitting by the water and asking himself whatever happened to that girl” (CCS 235).
When Zmeya’s child comes, the midwife who delivers it is an old friend of these tales, but before they can end, the orphan tells the prince she has told him all she can read on her eyes:
“All that remains now are the tales which begin on one eye and end on another, which cross creases and lashes and twist over each other—these tales I do not know, I cannot tell. I cannot close my eyes and yet still read them in the water, or in the glass. They are hidden from me.”
The boy opened his mouth, and closed it again. “But I want to hear more!” he cried.
The girl smiled, a long, slow smile he had never seen before. “Will you tell me a story, my prince? Will you read from my closed eyes and let me rest my throat, let me hear the last things which are written upon me?”
“But ... I can’t do it. I can’t tell them the way you can. I’m not like you, I don’t know how to tell a tale, I don’t know how to speak in all those voices.”
“It is all there already. Please. I want to hear them. I want to know what is waiting on my skin, waiting to be told, waiting to be heard. I have told you so many things—tell me a story, if you are my friend.” (CCS 257–58)
The prince, though awkward and blushing, reads to her the remainder of the orphan’s tales, which twist and turn with more marvelous revelations. We find out the fate of the firebird and his daughter, Solace, and Aerie who brought them together. We see the final destiny of the city of Ajanabh and its remaining folk. We attend Dinarzad’s wedding in the Garden with the prince and his orphan girl as, veiled, she meets the Sultan.
As the stories head toward climax in the second volume, we see the cohesion between the two volumes as they link the plot threads, which build and backtrack and move forward. For example, Aerie as a gosling is cared for and nurtured by the Firebird:
“Why are you crying, little one?” he said, and his voice was like sunlight on the wing.
“I am alone,” I told him, and shivered, fearing his great bronze talons.
“I am alone, too,” he said. His feathers were the same as his eyes—the colors of embers, of flames licking at green branches, and his tail was a shower of gold. “If you want to come with me, neither of us will be alone. I will teach you how to catch moles when they peek out of see the sun, and how to steal cherries from orchards without being shot, and where there are fresh wells without dogs to guard them.” (NG 176)
Then in the second volume, we meet the Firebird again, who now has a human girl-child with him:
The child was resting on a lovely blue brocade, and she turned in her sleep, pulling up the Firebird’s wing over her shoulders like a blanket. (CCS 327)
A Djinn has come to see him. He tells her she must hush:
“My daughter needs her sleep.”
“Your daughter? But she’s human!”
“The ways of the world are strange and dear, my little flint-strike. My daughter she is, doubt it not.” (CCS 328)
Then we learn what became of the baby that Zmeya, the Snake-Star, bore and named Sorrow:
Out of the wood, a young girl came. She was very beautiful, and she wore a wispy red dress that seemed made for dancing. All along her right side ran stark tattoos: a dancing black flame. Beside her were a great Firebird, a black, smoking Djinn, and a small brown spider with glittering legs. The young girl walked slowly to Sorrow, who untangled herself from Aerie and stood to face her. Solace touched the girl’s eyelids softly, and looked into the white-hushed Garden.
“So this is where I would have lived, if I had not become a Firebird’s daughter,” she said. (CCS 513)
And so, when all the tales upon her eyelids are completed, we see one more, cumulating in a reunion of many the tales told of. A new tomorrow beyond the Garden awaits the orphan and her prince, her life unveiled.
Marilyn “Mattie” Brahen lives in Philadelphia.