A brief mention of The Orphan’s Tales

The Orphan’s Tales: In the Night Garden was one of the best books I’ve read in a while. Now that I’ve read book 2, Cities of Coin and Spice I feel comfortable elevating it to my golden bookshelf of great books of all time. It is a classic “Mirror for Princes” or book of moral instruction robed in the most entertaining sugary stories. Beasts and monsters, fantastic quests, myths, and the subtle moving of relationships over time, mix with global politics and the pleasure of creation of worlds, & with a healthy dose of messing gender politics and narrative. It makes everything else look clumsy. I’ve read the Pancatantra, different versions of Kalila and Dimna, the Mahabharata, various translations of 1001 Nights and the Ramayana, all the Icelandic and Norwegian sagas you can think of and more, and a wad of the longer Chinese novels as well. Long, complicated novels with vast arcs of interrelated stories! My obsession! It’s like savoring the endless complexities of a drink of water when you’re dying of thirst. This is a deeply satisfying book. Sugar and good medicine, as a mirror for princesses should be.

I am annoyed at the misunderstanding of it as a collection of fairy tales. You could read it that way… and it could be lovely and satisfying and entertaining that way too.

But damn, the beautiful writing! The sentences that make me swoon, one after the other! The complicated structure! The way so many characters have tendrils into other stories 5 layers deep and 500 pages away! The way that you see the same story from multiple tellings and points of view, not in a bludgeon-you-over-the-head way but sideways so you have to think and remember and look back to figure it out, because an echo has caught your ear or eye.

I’m rereading it for the third time and figuring things out while taking notes. I had to, to figure out whether it was always the Wizard Omir or not in some of the stories, and who everyone was, and when (I am not quite clear on the when of things as the Caliphates are confusing, and Ragnhild and the wars.)

The sources are pleasantly diverse to anyone who loves things to be non-eurocentric. Yes it has central european fairy tale roots, and arab and persian, and norse, and a bit of chineseness and lots of hindu mythological/philosophical/literary sources. WITHOUT BEING STUPID about it. So rare!

You will notice that barely anyone is white and if they are it is a matter of remark that they have sun-colored hair or milk-skin; it is good too to read something where the baseline isn’t white white white.

If I could just point out… what Valente has done is pretty fucking amazing. The Pancatantra for example does nested stories with dazzling splendor and with the beautiful layering of meaning & message that builds up so that by the end you are likely taught some part of the complicated lessons of how it might be wise to treat other people well and behave morally or whatever. But the characters from the Friends book don’t resurface transformed by time and adventures and new relationships in later tales – as they do in The Orphan’s Tales. In My Name is Red, another very lovely but also very maddening-because-so-sexist book of complex nested stories that pack a political punch, the stories are interrelated and from different points of view, unlike the 1001 Nights or older tales, but Valente’s book is actually larger in scope and twice as complicated. She kicks Orhan Pamuk’s ass around the block and back. May I live to see her Nobel Prize… surely she will give a better speech than Lessing’s vague Luddite rant which I can’t snarl about enough…

(What I mean about Pamuk and sexism is just utter awkward blindness, like you’re reading some fabulous lovely book and then realize in midstream or right away if you’re tuned in, that there’s one female character out of a cast of hundreds and she’s THE LAND or THE NATION or something, totally smurfette syndrome, with added annoying nationalism that is also romantic love. Pamuk suffers from it, badly. Valente is the antidote to it – I’ve been waiting all my life to read this.)

Valente deserves world level recognition of these books. I have a lot more to say about this and will be posting something more coherent on the feministsf blog and wiki. My notes while reading developed into a sort of glossary of the characters and some different outlines of events. They’ll have massive spoilers, and are meant for the pleasure of re-reading with increased understanding – not for use while reading the first time unless you want to be a dirty rotten cheater.

And all written with the most beautiful exquisite sense of humor!

All this is mostly about book 1. But my god, in book 2, The book of the storm! The coins! Valente is not fucking around or pulling any punches here.

Could someone please do me a favor and get Peter Beagle to read it just to make him faint with envy and pleasure? Twist his arm, please. I only know him a little and not well enough to persuade him. But well enough to want to give him a present.

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4 Responses to “A brief mention of The Orphan’s Tales”

  1. laura queue



    i’ll start wikifying links to the character names …
    hi sugar! we’re in the bay area doing family stuff for the next couple of days. call us & let’s schedule …

  2. JustKristin



    Dammit, Liz, now I am reading In the Night Garden instead of working on grant-funded research. Thanks a lot. As if I have time to be swooning, no matter how worthy the book. :)
    *hugs*

  3. Grace



    I absolutely couldn’t agree more with this commentary on the books. I can think of no other books I’ve read lately, or perhaps ever, that made me put them down every now and then just to say “dear me…how fucking brilliant!” The way that St. Sigrid cared for the gryphon babies, and the way the boy in the garden had to read the last of the tales were just two of many examples of this. I’d love to see a whole community spring up online of artists, poets, writers, and just plain-fans of this work! In fact, I found your blog by googling “Orphan’s Tales” in hopes that such a place already existed. Not only was the reading of the books so pleasant, but I was inspired with the most amazing dreams, and desire to write more stories and create art of all of her amazing vivid moments!

  4. badgerbag



    Hey Grace! I started my page on the books here:
    http://wiki.feministsf.net/index.php?title=The_Orphan%27s_Tales:_In_the_Night_Garden#List_of_Characters
    check it out!

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