misspenylane replied to your quote: “I wish,” she whispered, “that I were as brave and…
what’s this book about?
EVERYTHING BEAUTIFUL IN THE WORLD.
No okay sorry. It’s an Arabian Nights style set up where a prince meets a girl in the garden. She’s been shunned as cursed because she has this strange birthmark where her eyelids and the skin around her eyes are dyed with a black ink that won’t wash away. These tattoos are actually tiny printed stories and when they meet she starts telling them to him.
The stories are wonderful. *____* Valente plays off all sorts of myths and fairy tales, you can recognize some of the figures she uses but they’re always inverted or deepened or changed somehow. One of the biggest themes of this book is that everyone gets to tell their story: no one is ever demonized without a chance to speak. The tales are structured like a nested egg, a character will start talking about the quest they went on when they met someone who started telling them about their background and so on. The farther you get in the book the more you realize how interconnected they all are. Characters from one story pop up in the others. One day when I have a lot of free time I just want to draw out a web so I can see all of the connections, there are so many that occasionally I’ll feel like one of the descriptions is familiar without being able to trace quite where I’ve heard it before.
Also her writing is gorgeous. Initially it feels a bit purple prose-y and I was like does everything need to be described through similes but it settles down and becomes really effective in immersing you into the world of the stories. Here, listen.
I am a tree.
But it is easy to say this tree is me. I was born when the tree before it dropped seed; I opened my eyes underground and ate dirt, dirt like cake and jam and wonderful water dripping through the earth like honey through a sieve. I was always thirsty.
And one day I came up through the ground in a little green shoot. I opened the shoot as easily as a door, and stepped out into the sun, a child like any other child. But I still slept in the tree every night as it grew, and as I grew. I loved it like a limb, and it loved me like a torso, and we were very happy together.
That’s not even one of her best passages but it gives me an excuse to segue into the characters. :D So Valente loves monsters. The book’s chock full of them: there’s deformed witches, men and women with the heads of beasts, centaur kings and heron kings and polar bears on quests. There’s a snake goddess, a princess who’s been transformed into a chimera of half a dozen different creatures, a mermaid (no sorry, a magyr she’d be offended that I called her that), a red skinned beast called the Leucrotta. She plays with the idea of the monstrous: its usually those who identify as monsters who are the most sympathetic and the ones who’d call them that the worst.
Also she draws on stories all over the world for her inspiration, like I can identify characters who are Slavic, Middle Eastern, Greek, and Indian just off the top of my head. Spot the Valente inspiration! is the best game, I’m definitely going to devote at least one reread to that some time in the future.
And on top of that she does one of my very favourite things where she looks at common elements to fairytale structures and says hey no that’s dumb, let me fix that for you. I’m trying to avoid big spoilers so here, I’ll give you a different example. I read this book of fairytale retellings once — I actually can’t remember the name at the moment, but that’s okay, it was mostly mediocre and the author didn’t do all that much that felt new to me — where one of the stories she retold was Vasilisa and Baba Yaga. And in this version of the story Vasilisa was Baba Yaga’s granddaughter and she loved her and of course that changed the meaning of the story entirely. And after that I was just like oh my god, that’s beautiful, Vasilisa should be Baba Yaga’s grand daughter in all the stories, hurray for love and family! Valente is all about that. Valente brings in the stepmother with her two daughters and she and the princess end up adoring each other, she treats her as her own and teaches her all the magic she knows. So much of this book about love and so very little of it is romantic. (Don’t get me wrong, I have nothing against romantic love, dyed in the wool shipper here, but I just love how many of the big sacrifices here come from a grandmother’s love for her grandchild, or a woman’s love for her city)
And as though that isn’t enough, the book is illustrated by Michael Kaluta so you get to feast your eyes on pictures like this:
By the time you finish reading the book you’re able to identify every single character on that cover. :D The snake is one of my favourites.