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The Orphan's Tales #1

In the Night Garden

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A Book of Wonders for Grown-Up Readers

Every once in a great while a book comes along that reminds us of the magic spell that stories can cast over us–to dazzle, entertain, and enlighten. Welcome to the Arabian Nights for our time–a lush and fantastical epic guaranteed to spirit you away from the very first page . . .

Secreted away in a garden, a lonely girl spins stories to warm a curious peculiar feats and unspeakable fates that loop through each other and back again to meet in the tapestry of her voice. Inked on her eyelids, each twisting, tattooed tale is a piece in the puzzle of the girl’s own hidden history. And what tales she tells! Tales of shape-shifting witches and wild horsewomen, heron kings and beast princesses, snake gods, dog monks, and living stars–each story more strange and fantastic than the one that came before. From ill-tempered “mermaid” to fastidious Beast, nothing is ever quite what it seems in these ever-shifting tales–even, and especially, their teller. Adorned with illustrations by the legendary Michael Kaluta, Valente’s enchanting lyrical fantasy offers a breathtaking reinvention of the untold myths and dark fairy tales that shape our dreams. And just when you think you’ve come to the end, you realize the adventure has only begun….

Praise for In the Night Garden

“Cathrynne Valente weaves layer upon layer of marvels in her debut novel.  In the Night Garden  is a treat for all who love puzzle stories and the mystical language of talespinners.” —Carol Berg, author of  Daughter of Ancients

“Fabulous talespinning in the tradition of story cycles such as The Arabian Nights. Lyrical, wildly imaginative and slyly humorous, Valente's prose possesses an irrepressible spirit.” —K. J. Bishop, author of  The Etched City

“Astonishing work! Valente’s endless invention and mythic range are breathtaking. It’s as if she’s gone night-wandering, and plucked a hundred distant cultures out of the air to deliver their stories to us.” —Ellen Kushner, author of  Thomas the Rhymer

“Refreshingly original in both style and form,  In the Night Garden  should delight lovers of myth and folklore.” —Juliet Marillier, author of the Sevenwaters trilogy

483 pages, Paperback

First published October 28, 2006

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About the author

Catherynne M. Valente

255 books7,216 followers
Catherynne M. Valente was born on Cinco de Mayo, 1979 in Seattle, WA, but grew up in in the wheatgrass paradise of Northern California. She graduated from high school at age 15, going on to UC San Diego and Edinburgh University, receiving her B.A. in Classics with an emphasis in Ancient Greek Linguistics. She then drifted away from her M.A. program and into a long residence in the concrete and camphor wilds of Japan.

She currently lives in Maine with her partner, two dogs, and three cats, having drifted back to America and the mythic frontier of the Midwest.

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Displaying 1 - 30 of 936 reviews
Profile Image for Grace.
246 reviews155 followers
March 1, 2008
"Writing about music is like dancing about architecture," or so the old quote says. I can't help but remember this saying as I attempt to write down some of my fragmented, all too feeble thoughts regarding Catherynne Valente's masterwork, The Orphan Tales: In the Night Garden and In the Cities of Coin and Spice. To start out with a bang, I have to tell you what my reaction was upon completing the last page of the second book. It was 1am, and I set the book down, after having to re-read one of the pivotal revelations on the last page and say "ohhh...I SEE." I turned the light out, lay down in bed, and started crying. And I don't just mean a few pinpricks from my eyes like I've had happen for a handful of tales over the years. I mean nose-sniffling, shoulder-shaking crying. I cried and I shook my head as I cried, laughing at myself for reacting more strongly than I had to any book I'd ever read. I cried because the books were done. I cried because the ending was so incredible. I cried because I was in awe of Catherynne Valente, only one year older than me, and having given something to the world of myth and story and imagination that I feel should go into the same column (and high in that column) as the greatest contributors of all time. How can one person have so much inside? And be able to get it all out onto the page?

This book is not an easy read. Let me tell you that straight-out as well. Many people have written reviews saying "I couldn't keep track of the stories" or "the format was too distracting, with the nested stories." I also found this to be true the first time I read the first book. I got to a little over page 100, and returned it to the library. But Valente's name kept cropping up...first on Endicott Studios, featuring an incredible short story I loved, then on Jen Parrish's website, as she created a gorgeous necklace in the shape of a boat with red sails for an auction. I sought out more of Cat's short stories, and I was blown away by every single one. Finally I decided to try the book again, settling down with it at the start of winter, when the fire crackled in my fireplace, and the stories folded around me like blankets against the snow. I approached it with more patience, and gave it time, rather than trying to rush through it. And I discovered that this book was not only good...it was the most imaginative, fully-formed, genius, and moving work of literature I'll most likely ever read.

If I seem to be overly prosaic and prone to hyperbole about this book, (I should say books, since it's a duology, but the two volumes fit together like one work) it's just a symptom of how much it has crept into every fiber of me. I now want to write extra stories about descendants of her tales. I want to create art showing the pivotal moments in the stories that I adored.

The message of the books is both simple and incredibly complex. The tales themselves are both an intricate symphony, and a simple thread that weaves around to end at a simple resolution. Valente is the Weaver of these tales, closing her eyes, grabbing all that is around her, and remaking it into beautiful gowns, girls, and cities, knowing all the while where the tales will end, whether that end is happy or sad.

A side note: I read a review on here saying that the reader didn't understand why Valente received the Tiptree Award, since her book only featured female protagonists, and didn't seem to make any new contributions to feminism. I cannot imagine that this reader read the same book that I did. The feminism carried through in every tale in a tale in a tale. Valente took every mythic archetype, every trope, and turned it on its head, making you think to yourself "well why DO I always assume a Selkie is a woman, or that a Satyr is a man? Why DID I presume that the sailor who stole Sigrid from her home had to be a man? And why can't daughters grow up to be warriors, and sons grow up to be beautiful?"

Profile Image for mark monday.
1,644 reviews5,094 followers
January 30, 2013
Tales within tales, tales out of space, tales that spring from stars that fall from sky to take human shape; the writer writes like the dreamer dreams dreams - some dreams yearning and romantic, others dark and tragic, each dream holding a little bit of the next dream in its heart: the story as Oriental Ouroboros: the Arabian Nights as template, as both starting point and point of resolution; themes and metaphors and symbols slowly surfacing, to disappear and then reappear again, transformed, reborn - a byzantine pattern of eastern arabesques and western curlicues, swirling together and then apart; the writer weaves a tapestry of stories woven within stories; tales that leap from earth in the form of beasts and birds, tales out of time, many tales within one great, enchanted tale.
Profile Image for Algernon (Darth Anyan).
1,493 reviews960 followers
March 17, 2016
I've read parts of The Arabian Night about thirty years ago. In the Night Garden succeeds in recapturing that sense of wonder, of exploring incredibly rich, exotic cities, meeting fantastic creatures, magicians, kings and vagabonds, sailing to mythical shores or descending into mysterious caverns. And Catherynne Valente managed this without copying or borrowing from the original tales.

Her world may be inspired from different folk tales (I recognized Baba Yaga hut and people turned into birds, and I'm sure there are others) , but it feels original and modern in its self awareness, sometimes ironic treatment and dialogue. Some of the tales are quite dark, others bring a smile or a laugh to the fore - like the tale of the princess in the tower which is both at the same time. Some tales may feel random, but in the end it all makes sense, when the threads of the plot are gathered together, and the reader finds out that every little detail has a part to play in the final outcome. And some stories are carrying over from one major tale to the other - making the overall worldbuilding a coherent project.

The real strength of the novel for me is in the beautiful language. Valente is a stylist, a perfectionist who believes a tale can and should be beautiful.

We were just holes, after all, holes filled up with light, and deep in our secret hearts we worried that we were an accident, nothing more than puddles who stood up and gave each other names...

I could compare her style with Patricia McKillip or Peter S Beagle - two of my favorite authors - but she stands in a class of her own. Maybe because she relies in her storytelling on the oral traditions and on the ancient mythologies, maybe because her imagination runs wilder and farther than the other authors I've mentioned.

Anyway, I would recommend this book to everybody I know, without reservations. I would even say it is good for younger readers, who need to flex their imagination muscles, despite the relatively mature content. (The Arabian Nights are in fact a lot more explicit and raunchy than this one) . I would also recommend it to older readers like me, who like to remember that they were children once, and they loved to open the first page of a book and read a line like this:

In the fifteenth year of the second Caliphate, a child was born in the Blessed City of Ajanabh to a family of traveling spicers whose fingers smelled forever of cinnamon and coriander.

Profile Image for carol..
1,535 reviews7,865 followers
January 30, 2015

Book as arabesque.

Short story leads to short story, each providing background and impetus for the next, characters answering questions to what led them to that intersection. It's a beautiful technique that comes back around to many of the original story characters.

The trouble for me is that the short story makes it easy to put down and go do something else, as it's often a natural break in the plot and action, so it took me far too long to finish. More clues or story in the background setting of the young wild girl in the king's garden could have helped give context to why she is there and keep me motivated; perhaps the second book will bring the story telling back around to the "real" narrative of the young girl and the prince.

I find the language and ideas poetic and beautiful. Some might find the prose "purplish" but I would say that fans of de Lint and Beagle will love it. Valente deserves the James Tiptree Jr. award with such interesting female characters and her ability to turn conventions sideways. The story of the princess in the tower became particularly fascinating. It's a very full, imaginative book that usually does not go too far into moralizing; characters are created uniquely and quickly in the short stories, and subsequent ones even bring insight into villains and evil kings and sorceresses.
Profile Image for Bradley.
Author 6 books3,964 followers
July 31, 2019
Reading this book has left me practically speechless. Almost anything I could say about it will fall flat in the sheer enormity of the experience.

So what DID I experience?


Dark fables incorporating wide mythologies reminiscent of all the best obscure fairy tales twisted in wonderfully unique ways, couched as stories within stories, adding tiny slivers of fate within each until it brings us back, wholly, to our Scheherazade, our poor orphan telling her story from the words tattooed on her eyelids. :)

My particular favorites were the witches drowning in light, the ones who would not die, the irascible pirate mermaid, and all the selkie stories. The dog monks were a great treat as well.

More importantly, this is VALENTE. Everything she writes is lyrical and fascinating and careful and poetical. From the words to the ideas to the characters and their ultimate fates, we run the whole line from vengeance to magical sex-change love to living stars in the sky.

I personally can't understand why it took me this long to get to her earlier work. It's fantastic. :)
Profile Image for Kay.
197 reviews362 followers
December 5, 2011
Tales within tales within tales, all woven together like a magical, colorful tapestry depicting griffins, dead moon walkers, beastly princesses, princely beasts, pirate saints, Stars, snake gods, and so much more, all written in dark ink around the eyes of a little girl. Reading Valente's prose is like dreaming; during the act, you understand everything and think you see the truth, but when jerked back into reality, the stories fade together into a colorful, abstract image. It's pretty and meaningful, but you can't quite explain the story behind the image as well as you would like to.

The book begins with a lonely little girl who lives in the palace gardens. A prince, curious and slightly afraid, meets the little girl, and soon after the two bond in a tender friendship punctuated by midnight meetings in which the girl spins her tales. The tales she spins are myths of creation, journeys, religion, death, and life, but not as we have heard before. Some of the myths are dark, involving death and violation, but others are whimsical and yearning. A number of fantastical creatures inhabit the pages, all interacting in some way or another, as if existing on a great web. They are spread apart along the plane of the web, but somehow, they are all directly or indirectly connected in this big tapestry of life.

In the Night Garden is one of the most unique books that I've read in a long time; it's a book that you read for the stories and the prose, a book in which to meander, not a plot-dominated book that keeps you up at night with non-stop action. Valente's writing is flowery and imaginative, but purposeful. She chooses her words carefully and does not write for the sake of putting words down on paper. It takes a while to get used to the flow and rhythm of her prose, but once you do, you lose yourself in her words and stories, just like the little prince who loses himself in the girl's tales.

Sometimes, the tales within tales within tales got confusing, and I lost track of where I was. I was tempted to even make a little map of what happens. But I think that while the book is composed of stories, the stories come together to result in the symphony. Would you attend a symphony orchestra to listen to just the violins or the cellos? Would you try to isolate each section, analyze the single instrument's contribution to the overall whole? Some may, but in doing so, we sacrifice the final symphony for just one instrument. No, we listen for the finished product, to rejoice in how so many different components come together to create beautiful music. That is how this book should be read, as a symphony of well crafted tales that create a more beautiful whole. Approach the book with patience and an open mind. It will all come together in the end as something lovely and unique, I promise.
Profile Image for Tatiana.
1,400 reviews11.7k followers
December 10, 2009
This book was a truly magical experience. I came across it almost by accident looking for something to satisfy Mysopoethic award winner category for my reading challenge. I am very happy I did because "The Orphan's Tales" is definitely not something I would normally be interested in.

This book is an Arabian Nights-inspired collection of stories that are nested within each other and cross over in the most unexpected places. The stories are not simple re-workings of old worn-out fairy tales. Now and then you come across a familiar character from Middle-Eastern, Slavic, Asian, or Ancient Greek folklore but they are put in a completely original setting. The writing style in the beginning seems a little purplish with a lot of description but gradually you come to appreciate its vividness as an integral part of the stories and you simply can't put down this book of monster princesses, witches, horse-women, Stars, skin traders, dog-headed monks, Selkies, satyrs, and priestesses.

I wouldn't assume that this book is for everybody, but if you like everything fantastical, if you are a fan of dark fantasy, this book is a must-read for you.

Reading challenge: #1 - O.
Profile Image for Susan.
1,251 reviews
March 2, 2009
This has taken forever for me to finish. I just didn't want to go back to it. The first part is beautifully written, but her prose feels very effortful, as if all the beauty had to be hammered out, line by line, and she wants you to see each stroke. It finally picked up, but the interconnecting stories create a jumbled mess of a plot, not at all helped by the fact that many characters live for centuries, therefore making a general timeline almost impossible to put together. Very prettily described things happen in a very haphazard order.
Profile Image for Stephen.
1,516 reviews11k followers
June 23, 2010
5.5 to 6.0 stars. HIGHEST POSSIBLE RECOMMENDATION and may make it on to me list of "All Time Favorites." This is an absolutely amazing novel that I believe could become a "classic" in years to come. A modern fairy tale told as a series of interwoven "stories within stories within stories" that all come together in one fashion or another (itself a brilliant achievement). This is a "one of a kind experience" and I can not wait to read the sequel.

Nominee: World Fantasy Award for Best Novel (2007)
Winner: James Tiptree Award for Best Novel (2007)
Winner: Mythopoeic Fantasy Award for Adult Literature (2008)

Profile Image for Charlotte Kersten.
Author 3 books431 followers
February 7, 2022
“Never put your faith in a Prince. When you require a miracle, trust in a Witch.”

So What's It About?

A girl lives abandoned in a sultan's garden, and her eyes are covered with stories. When a boy ventures into the garden, he discovers the girl and the incredible magic of the stories she possesses; her tales introduce him to a world of beasts and monstrosities, stars and witches, princes and princesses, each with their own history of adventure, suffering, love and loss.

What I Thought

I have never read a book like In the Night Garden before, and I expect that I will not read another book like it until I read its sequel. I have seen it described as an arabesque in book form, and I think that is exactly the right way to describe it. Its stories twist and twine, interrupt and intersect, and you never know when you will encounter a familiar character depicted in a fresh new light or a scrap of story that had been mentioned previously enhanced and complicated, breathed to new life. I had no idea how each section would come together but both of them did so beautifully and amazingly in ways that I would never have imagined.

Each story is a brilliant little gem, perfect in its own right but even more amazing when you step back and take in the overall tapestry of storytelling that Valente has deftly woven. Some stories are incredibly funny, with the following being the one that made me laugh the most:

"ONCE UPON A TIME THERE WAS A HANDSOME PRINCE who went to rescue his innocent sister from the fell beast. The Leucrotta snapped his spine with one crack of its jaws, and wore his head and hands on its antlers for a fort night in celebration.
The Witch sat back with satisfaction."

By turns the other stories are ethereal, rich, strange, bloody, sad and haunting. The underlying factor is their unceasing creativity, in that they offer twists to tired tropes, illuminate new voices and feature a dizzying variety of amazing beings. It also helps that Valente's prose is powerful, leaving me stunned on a few occasions. Here is a favorite:

"You wanted Death? This is it. Dirt and decay, nothing more. Death translates us all into earth.” He frowned at me, his cheeks puffing slightly. “Are you disappointed? Did you want a man in black robes? I’m sure I’ve a set somewhere. A dour, thin face with bony hands? I’ve more bones in this house than you could ever count. You’ve been moping over half the world looking for Death as though that word meant anything but cold bodies and mushrooms growing out of young girls’ eye-sockets. What an exceptionally stupid child!” Suddenly he moved very fast, like a turtle after a spider—such unexpected movement from a thing so languid and round. He clapped my throat in his hand, squeezing until I could not breathe…I whistled and wheezed, beating at his chest, and my vision blurred, thick as blood. “You want Death?” he hissed. “I am Death. I will break your neck and cover you with my jar of dirt. When you kill, you become Death, and so Death wears a thousand faces, a thousand robes, a thousand gazes.” He loosened his grip. “But you can be Death, too. You can wear that face and that gaze. Would you like to be Death? Would you like to live in this house and learn his trade?"

The female characters of this book are a delightful bunch because of their sheer nonconformity- they are hideous witches who delight in disgust, mutant princesses-turned-pirate, stars, snake priestesses and more. They are rejects and outcasts, heritcs and monsters-unwanted and unruly women who have been owned and abused, imprisoned, rejected and denounced by a world that detests them. They defy expectation by persevering, saving each other and even banding together:

"When we hear of some ghastly beast, we snap her up as soon as we can."

I would also argue that the act of giving voice to their experiences through their story-telling is an incredibly important and powerful one:

"They take and take and what does it matter? No one asks the taken; they just forget, they just forget, they disappear and everyone forgets.”

But by telling their stories they ensure that people do not forget. They insist that they have the right to be heard; they fight the narratives that limit and hurt them by creating their own.
This entire review has been hidden because of spoilers.
Profile Image for Brian.
Author 1 book978 followers
August 18, 2015
Fans of creation myths, fractured fairy tales and stories in the key of If on a Winter’s Night a Traveler will find plenty to love in this wondrous book of interweaving tales.

Valente writes in a panoply of differing voices; her stories rich and unique in their telling – marvelously intertwined and displaying real writerly prowess. The reader is taken down the rabbit hole of tales, each telescoping deeper into a rich narrative replete with beautifully imagined monsters, the angels and devils of human (and not-so-human) nature and fully imagined lands that even some of the best Fantasy writing can’t get right with 1,000 pages of exposition.

Highly recommended. I will definitely continue reading Valente and look forward to the follow up book to this one - In the Cities of Coin and Spice.
Profile Image for Jennifer.
425 reviews182 followers
December 26, 2019
Here at last is something truly rich and strange - a rarefied dish to cleanse even the most jaded palate. In the Night Garden is a virtuoso feat of storytelling somewhere between Italo Calvino and Arabian Nights that has me wondering over its slyly subversive stories days after I finished.

All of the stories herein begin with this one: an abandoned girl in a garden whose skin has magically been inscribed with minutely tattooed stories. Faced with her first and only potential audience, she is compelled to tell her stories, for "Together they make a great magic, and when the tales are all read out, and heard end to shining end, to the last syllable, the spirit will return and judge me." Each story opens within the one before it like Russian nesting dolls. But then, several stories deep, a character from an earlier story reappears in a different narrator's story in a very different light; an action taken many stories ago is seen to have consequences that ripple out to touch other stories, other lives. There's little moral judgment: even a villain is allowed to be the hero of his own story.

It’s an intricately orchestrated and imagined plunge into mythology. No stories are exactly retellings, but the elements are all there: princes, maidens, firebirds, monsters, wizards, pirates, curses. Make no mistake, these are stories for adults that deal in often ugly realities, even though the language elides graphic violence. Certain themes start to emerge after reading enough of these stories: power is expensive. Actions have consequences. Not all monsters look monstrous - and vice versa. Gods always disappoint. There's a chewiness to many of these stories that hints that they would reward closer and repeated reading.

Catherynne Valente writes so gorgeously, commandingly, immersively that In the Night Garden almost feels claustrophobic at times. Open almost any page at random, and find passages like this:
I had all the time in the world; the life of a tree is long. I learned the arts of irrigation and aeration, of the tripartite field and the leaving of the fallow, fertilization and pruning, and the science of grafting. And all the while the pumpkin tree grew, and gave fruit, and wherever I mashed the pulp into the roots of the new trees, they would bear their own fruit all the year. The acres of mud became a forest, an orchard, the loveliest of any that ever grew, and at the center my tree that is me and me that is the tree, and we all grew together, and were happy.

The sun took my flesh away in its arms, and the moon whitened my bones to dust. I fell away from myself, into some deep well of dreaming - I remember nothing from the last gasp until I awoke, washed in gray light. The necromancer Marsili had bound me bodiless in some strange glass vial, and I watched him as the years flew by like blackbirds - sometimes he was a woman, sometimes a man, sometimes a child as he had been when he first came to me. But I learned to recognize him in each body, the upturn of the eye, the cruel crooked mouth, the gestures of his hands. I learned, and more than that. The necromancer performed many horrible things in his workshop, and I learned from him all the magic he learned from his bodies. After all, he was the only thing I saw for all those years. I had nothing to do but become a student of his every sigh and gesture.

If I was disappointed by one thing, it was that I didn’t know this was a duology going in, and I expected more resolution of the frame story than was provided. I think it could have been done, too, and it would have been a fine standalone novel.

This was my first book by Catherynne Valente. It most assuredly will not be my last.
Profile Image for Siria.
1,792 reviews1,307 followers
May 23, 2010
This is much the kind of book I would expect to be written by someone who changed her name to 'Catherynne', with that spelling—it's all fantastical creatures and quests and magic. It is a much more intelligent book than I expected, with stories nested within stories, and gender tropes are inverted (there are no damsels in distress here) to my great satisfaction. The maiden is the monster is the pirate; women can grow up to be fierce warriors.

However, the Arabian Nights-style format can be a little confusing, and the time line (which spans centuries) can be difficult to keep straight—this is not a book to put down and leave for a while. I also found the prose terribly overworked—it was ornate in ways that sometimes didn't make any sense, all metaphors and similes and occasionally ye olde dialogue. If the prose were a little less awkward and the narrative just that bit more straightforward, this would be a really great book—as it is, I enjoyed In the Night Garden, but won't be rushing to seek out the conclusion of the duology.
Profile Image for Kagama-the Literaturevixen.
793 reviews123 followers
February 10, 2014
I guess what I really have a problem with is how the tales are told in this book. I was expecting a 1001 nights approach to it all. One night,one tale. You know the thing.

But in this the stories just pile on top of each other, The girl starts out with a story and then someone in that story tells a story to another character and then we go into that story and so on.

It was maddening to me and I lost interest in trying to follow the increasingly more confusing story.
Profile Image for Megan Baxter.
985 reviews656 followers
May 19, 2014
I have loved or really enjoyed all of Valente's books that I've read. I'm a big fan. And while I quite enjoyed In the Night Garden quite a lot, there were moments when it feels like she was almost losing those strands of story, that they weren't being woven together quite enough and started to feel a bit snarled instead of simply messy.

Note: The rest of this review has been withdrawn due to the changes in Goodreads policy and enforcement. You can read why I came to this decision here.

In the meantime, you can read the entire review at Smorgasbook
Profile Image for Kat  Hooper.
1,582 reviews400 followers
April 16, 2009
ORIGINALLY POSTED AT Fantasy Literature.

I haven't read any fantasy quite like Catherynne M. Valente's The Orphan's Tales duology. This is the story of a young orphan girl who is shunned because of the dark smudges that appeared on her eyelids when she was a baby. She lives alone in a sultan's garden because people think she's a demon and nobody will claim her. However, one of the young sons of the sultan, a curious fellow, finds her in the garden and asks her about her dark eyes. She explains that there are wonderful stories written on her eyelids and that a spirit has told her she must read and tell the stories; Then the spirit will return and judge her. The prince loves stories, he begs her to tell him one, and so she begins.

The rest of In the Night Garden and its sequel In the Cities of Coin and Spice is a collection of nested stories that are interspersed with short interactions between the young prince and the girl with the dark eyes (somewhat like The Arabian Nights). These stories are all connected to each other, but each is unique and highly imaginative. There are fascinating creatures--many based on myths and fairy tales--like a monopod, two griffins, a necromancer, a wicked papess, an otter king, a woman with three breasts, three brothers with dog heads who become accidental cannibals, a leucrotta, a Magyr, a skin seller, living stars fallen to earth . . . and these are just some of those that I can describe in a few words (and I'm not giving them justice). The characters in The Orphan's Tales remind me of the Cantina Scene in Star Wars. The darker characters, (e.g., the wizard and the necromancer), are particularly excellent. Ms Valente's imagination for bizzarre characters and plots exceeds Lewis Carroll's and she never lets up. Each story is brilliant and brilliantly told.

And the prose is truly beautiful:

"He was very tall, and thin as a length of paper. His skin and cloaks were the color of the moon--not the romantic lover's moon, but the true lunar geography I had heard whispered by Sun-and-Moon Nurians come to buy glass for their strange sky-spying tools: gray and pockmarked, full of secret craters, frigid peaks, and blasted expanses. His eyes had no color in them save for a pinpoint pupil like a spindle's wound--the rest was pure, milky white. He passed three solid gold pieces over my mother's palm, and she shuddered in revulsion at his touch when the money changed hands. She handed me over eagerly, examining the coins like a fat pig snuffling at its supper slop."

"My mother had kept silent as a nun since the day my sister was taken from her. I was an infant when she vanished from us; I never knew that sister. But her absence stalked the house like a hungry dog. The hole where she had been took up space at our dinner table, it sagged and slumped in the musty air, it ate and drank and breathed down all of our necks. . . I grew up alone in that silent house with nothing but the stinking cows and my mute mother and the hole. Even my father didn't want to spend his days there; he stayed in the fields directing hay-rolling and goat-breeding until it was dark enough to slip back inside the house without anyone bothering him. But still, the hole answered the bell when he rang, and he had to scurry to bed with his head down to avoid looking it in the eye."

There are many more of these gorgeous passages to enjoy. My only complaint about the writing itself is that there are dozens of characters in The Orphan's Tales and they ALL talk like that. So, it's not very realistic, but I suppose realism wasn't exactly what Ms Valente, as a poet, was going for.

One other small complaint I have is that because the stories of The Orphan's Tales seem at first to be random and unrelated, it's hard to feel deeply involved with many of the characters because they don't stick around for long (except for the orphan and the sultan's son who don't do much but talk and listen). But, again, that's the point, because we learn at the end of In the Cities of Coin and Spice that all of the strange stories and characters actually contribute to, and explain, the history of the orphan girl. Perhaps that's a bit of a spoiler, but you'll enjoy the stories more if you realize that it's all going somewhere. And, besides, you're a clever reader, and you'll probably figure out that there's got to be something going on here besides just a bunch of beautifully-written, highly imaginative, unconnected stories.

But, the main reason I'm telling you this is because I know you'll get more out of your reading if you follow the advice I'm going to give you... Just trust me: Get yourself a pencil, a pad of paper, and a fine cup of caffeinated coffee (in my experience, a Starbucks Venti Latte works best). Sit down with In the Night Garden and read the first few pages up to the point where the girl starts to tell "the first tale I was able to read, from the crease of my left eyelid." This first story is about Prince Leander. Write "Prince Leander" at the bottom of your paper. Prince Leander runs into a gray-haired tattooed "crone" and a few pages later, she starts to tell her story. Write "crone," or whatever you want to call her, above Prince Leander's name. Soon, "crone" starts telling the story that her grandmother told her. Write "crone's grandmother" above her name. (I've got a picture of my own notes at Fantasy Literature ) This is not the kind of book you can leave for a few days and come back to unless you have notes to tell you who was talking to who. Or unless you're a lot smarter than me ... which is certainly possible.

Highly recommended for the reader who appreciates beautiful prose, is willing to take notes, and is looking for something original.

Read more Catherynne Valente book reviews at Fantasy Literature
Profile Image for Nikoleta.
680 reviews275 followers
January 24, 2019
Το παράξενο κορίτσι διηγείται στο αγόρι μέσα στον κήπο, μικρές όμορφες ιστορίες, οι οποίες υφαίνουν μια μεγαλύτερη. Παρθένες φυλακισμένες σε κάστρα, κορίτσια χήνες, κορίτσια τέρατα, μάγισσες και μάγοι, πουλιά που αρπάζουν φωτιά. Όλες ανήκουν σε έναν μαγεμένο και παράξενο κόσμο.
Υπέροχο παραμύθι με σαγηνευτική ατμόσφαιρα. Θα ήταν τέλειο, αρκεί μόνο να μην είχε τόσες πολλές και ανώφελες μεταφορές, που αρκετές φορές δεν είχαν κανένα απολύτως νόημα.
Profile Image for Alix Harrow.
Author 37 books15.8k followers
October 2, 2013
I reviewed this book for the Women of Genre Fiction challenge hosted by Worlds Without End. I also review fantasy books weekly on my blog, The Other Side of the Rain.
Illustrations by the talented and versatile Michael Kaluta

In the Night Garden is essentially Arabian Nights, if Scheherazade had been a feminist literary critic with a working knowledge of world mythology and a wicked sense of irony. Certainly, this Scheherazade wouldn’t have ended up marrying the Sultan who put his first 1,000 wives to the death.

It starts with a young girl with dark tattoos around her eyes: tiny, black letters spelling out hundreds of fairy tales. A young prince becomes obsessed with the girl’s stories, and very soon the reader and the young prince are both sitting in rapt silence in the night garden, listening. For maybe five pages, you feel you’re in comfortable, predictable territory. The tattooed girls tells of a prince who runs away from home and discovers a witch’s hut in the woods. Ah, you think, if he doesn’t watch his mouth he’ll be set three impossible tasks. Or he’ll be transformed into a pig, or a beast, or wind up living in an enchanted castle waiting for his true love to see past his ugliness and marry him. But the rules are different in the night garden. Instead, the witch woman emerges, horribly scarred, and tells the prince her story. The nesting stories continue, each one more unearthly and brilliant and unpredictable than the last.

Like Byatt’s The Djinn in the Nightingale’s Eye , In the Night Garden is both a loving homage to fairy tales, and a gleeful overturning of the tired tropes and values they represent. Fairy tales, as we all know, always have a moral lurking in their glittery depths. Sleeping Beauty and Snow White taught us that the secret to feminine allure is hibernation, Beauty and the Beast showed us that looks don’t matter unless you’re the girl, and Hansel and Gretel taught us that we shouldn’t eat other people’s houses. So what are the morals of Valente’s fairy tales?

First, she’s teaching us to embrace a larger, more colorful world than the tired European Middle Earth we all know and love. As a white woman raised on a healthy diet of Grimm and Lang, I expect my fairy tales to have castles, villages, inns, stepmothers, witches, and a nice temperate climate. But in The Night Garden there are djinns and gods, vast deserts, leviathans, fox-faced women and centaur kings. The cultural references are quiet, but wildly varied: the city of Al-a-Nur is vaguely African and Islamic; a mention of foot-binding puts us in pre-modern China; the mare-goddess belongs on the Mongolian steppe. It’s disorienting and wonderful.

She’s also teaching us to gently bury our girlhood visions of princesses and stepmothers. “Maidens stand still, they are lovely statues and all admire them,” says a pirate and former maiden, but “Witches do not stand still. I was neither, but better that I err on the side of witchery, witchery that unlocks towers and empties ships.” In the Night Garden passes the Bechdel test, as Nadine says, a hundred times over. It even passes the newly-minted Russo test, which I didn’t even know existed. Even more rarely, Valente doesn’t feel compelled to beat us into submission by shouting, Look, reader, it’s a Strong Female Character Rejecting Patriarchy. It’s much more subtle, powerful, and painfully simple: her women are old, ugly, beautiful, married, celibate, violent, magical, and everything else it is possible to be in a fairytale.

Michael Kaluta Illustration
Finally, and maybe most importantly, Valente’s stories tell us that we should listen to the stories of the disempowered—what my dear postcolonial scholars would call subaltern voices. Her characters are the poor, dispossessed, monstrous, forgotten, and failed. There’s the orphan girl in some far northern fishing town, scrabbling for food and sleeping in the hulls of half-built boats. There’s a three-breasted Saint, an enslaved witch, a forgotten prophetess, a deer-footed princess, and a condemned Papess. The usual heroes—princes, kings, and wizards—are dangerous, ignorant characters who stomp heavy-footed through the stories. As one king tells his son, “Kings know there is only the Reign, and all things may be committed in its holy name…I have more blood on my hands than you could spill in a lifetime. I wear it proudly. It is my crown and my scepter.”

All these ambitions have their price: It takes an effort of concentration to follow all the winding stories and new characters and suddenly changing perspectives. The book can feel episodic, and there are unfinished threads and little fissures in the logic. It also takes a certain spirit of adventure; Valente takes you into the untracked fairytale wilderness and leaves you with nothing but a book of matches and a broken compass, without a familiar landmark in sight. It’s probably good for you. Because, in the end, In the Night Garden has the kinds of stories I’d like my (strictly imaginary) daughter to read. I'm eager to unearth the sequel, In the Cities of Coin and Spice.
910 reviews256 followers
February 6, 2017
I've put off reviewing this one not out of laziness (mostly), because it is one of the most stunningly beautiful books I have ever read, and I'm still lost for words.

Discovering that there is, in fact, a sequel, and that my library did not have it - in fact no library in Auckland did, so therefore it had to be ordered in specially - and that I would have to wait to read it... well, perhaps a review will come soon after all as In the Cities of Coin and Spice has finally arrived for me to devour.

Hold that thought, I won't be long.
Profile Image for lookmairead.
453 reviews
September 15, 2020
It’s true: This book is a fairytale masterpiece.

At first, the book feels like it’s delivering small whimsical data dumps like beach waves. At some point, you forget you were at the shore. Now you’re sailing on an enormous boat and you can’t see land.

Where did this boat come from? Do you ever get back to dry land? Do you ever care at that point? You’ll see what I mean if you end up reading this book. 😏

With all seriousness, Valente is a creative powerhouse. The structure alone is worth appreciating (if you have a hankering to read something heavier in this category). 4/5
Profile Image for Allison.
550 reviews566 followers
April 1, 2018
Strange, fascinating, and mesmerizing. This has an old world fairy tale feel but is like nothing else. The stories within stories within stories... how did Valente keep track? And somehow it all fits together into a larger tapestry. The structure is a work of art, the language is enchanting, the stories sobering and realistic and fantastic at the same time. More, please.
Profile Image for nastya .
418 reviews255 followers
May 26, 2021
Two fairly separate stories that sometimes intersect, each story consists of stories within stories.
The idea is great, the execution was maybe less so.
One reviewer mentioned murky mythology and it’s exactly that. Don’t expect a lot of cohesion. Meandering. Sometimes reminded me Ovid's Metamorphoses with its theme, but even that wasn't consistent. But I suppose it was THE theme. And I think I liked the first story more, although both of the finales were anticlimactic.
Still the book was very enjoyable, a quick read and a nice YA as a whole.

Now the review is over and can I share a few sentences that made me lol. Valente went for whimsy hard.

The man shrugged, and his body seemed to quake like the shifting of continents.

Time ran along like a leopard with eight legs.

But it was better than a damp parsnip and a damp wife.

The birds watched him like an exceptionally slow child who has just learned to throw a ball into the air and catch it without dropping it.

“I don’t believe I’ve ever heard you put so many words together in the same place, girl. If you’re not careful, they’ll get together and have babies, and then we’ll never shut you up.”

Wedged behind the bar was a great hulk of a man who looked as though some giant had simply dropped an armful of limbs into a heap.

The sound of it was deafening—it was like a scream of wind tearing through a child’s paper house, crumpling the walls and rafters as it blows.

Triplets occurred once in a generation, when the Snake-Star aligned with the Harpoon-Star, and the light of the Pierced Serpent fell on the yellow grass.
-- this is a complete mumbo jumbo and I loved it!

The girl laughed like rain trickling through palm leaves. ???

“I will! I will not let your tale keep me until light breaks the sky like a pitcher! - is this child from old-timey vaguely arabian country referencing baseball? Or a container? More!!! 😆
Profile Image for Zach.
285 reviews271 followers
November 29, 2016
One Thousand and One Nights meets European folktales and modern fantasy (think, perhaps, a somewhat more self-serious Princess Bride) in a nested series of linked short stories.* The overall frame, where a sultan's son is told the stories by an outcast orphan hiding on the palace grounds, is the least interesting part, but a good many of the other threads are incredibly effective, deftly examining and flipping gender roles, archetypes, tropes and cliches ("Never put your faith in a Prince. When you require a miracle, trust a Witch"). Particularly outstanding when dealing, as it often does, with melancholia and a deep sense of loss.

The wide-ranging structure gives us a densely-built world without ever descending to rank infodumps, and there's a lot of of oblique self-referentialism and gamesmanship, if that's your sort of thing (and it is my sort of thing).

All of this is told in prose so lush that it is at time downright sickening - I can understand why Valente was working in such baroque, vibrant strokes, but it was at times so over the top that it distracted from the content of the stories themselves. You have to be in a certain headspace for this, I think, but should also note that either she settles into a more natural approach as the book moves on, or else I just got used to the avalanche of similes.

* As in: a prince (viewpoint #1) meets a witch (2) whose grandmother (3), when she was a girl, was taken in by a horsewoman (4), then we jump back to the grandmother (3) and then the prince (1), then return to the horsewoman's story (4) as she meets a wolf (5), and so on and so forth.
Profile Image for aPriL does feral sometimes .
1,889 reviews428 followers
June 8, 2015
It took millennia for the stories to be collected that eventually became the fairy tales we know: Grimm's Fairy Tales, The Eddas, One Thousand and One Nights. The unknown authors of these famous stories have been many, passing down oral tales for generations.

Now, Catherynne Valente has created an epic collection of new dark fairy tales (this anthology contains two books of interlocking stories, as does the sequel), which not only have the feel and sound of ancient myths and fantasy stories, they are full of energy, adventure, buckets of blood, amputated and mutated body parts, magic, gods, creation myths, unjust murder, evil stepmothers and sadistic kings, vengeful witches, greedy wizards, terrible enchantments, disgusting metamorphoses, forced servitude and bad marriages, ugly monsters, and yes, abused and miserable orphans.

It didn't take her millennia, and these tales are entirely her own creation, although the stories are so amazing it seems impossible they hatched from one imagination. Each chapter introduces a character, who then tells a story introducing a character, who then tells a story introducing a character, who then tells a story introducing a character, who then tells a story introducing a character...and so on. Each chapter is short.

The language of the book is the most poetic, creative, inventive flow of words I have ever read in my life! The imaginary creatures in this 'ancient' fantasy world of a magical past will take over your daydreams. There are gorgeous illustrations as well - you will want to get the print version.

An excerpt from "The Book of the Steppe, the "Prelude":

""On an evening, when I was a very small child, an old woman came to the great silver gate, and twisting her hands among the rose roots told me this: I was not born with this mark. A spirit came into my cradle on the seventh day of the seventh month of my life, and while my mother slept in her snow white bed, the spirit touched my face, and left there many tales and spells, like the tattoos of sailors. The verses and songs were so great in number and so closely written that they appeared as one long, unbroken streak of jet on my eyelids. But they are the words of the river and the marsh, the lake and the wind. Together they make a great magic, and when the tales are all read out, and heard end to shining end, to the last syllable, the spirit will return and judge me.""

From the chapter "The Horsewoman's Tale":

"Now, the holes were up and walking around like you and me by this time, and one, roughly in the shape of a Rider, climbed over the Mare and she became full, as full and huge as a horse the size of everything, can be, until she foaled the whole world in a rush of light and milk and black, black blood from the most secret depths of the sky. The grass and the rivers and the stones and women and horses and more Stars and men and clouds and birds and trees came dancing through the afterbirth of the Mare, and swam happily in her milk and stopped up her secret blood, and the world was made, and the oceans washed the shore, and the Mare went cantering into the corners of herself, which just barely showed through the burning field of her Stars, and lay in a pasture neither you nor I could guess at, and chewed her favorite Grass-Stars in peace."

From "The Wolf's Tale"

"The Manikarnika were seven sisters, and when they were gnawed from the flesh of the Mare, they were Stones. Jade, Granite and Opal, Garnet and Shale and Iron Ore and little Diamond, pale as a milk-soaked paw."

From "The Witch's Tale, Continued":

"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 silken 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 at herself, bent into a graceful beak, which snapped in a kind of awe at the empty air."

From "The Tale of the Prince and the Goose, Continued":

"The Leucrotta is a terrible beast who lives in the Dismal Marshes. He is the color of clotted blood, part stag and part horse, of a size that dwarfs both, a mouth that stretches ear to ear, and instead of teeth it has twin rows of solid bone. It is very fearsome, I assure you."

For the literary reader who loves writing, this book will cause said gentle reader to faint with pleasure. I recommend taking time with this, and the sequel, In the Cities of Coin and Spice reading a few chapters a day. Do not think something is amiss if you must reread stories to keep track of the flow of stories - there is almost no plot other than adventures, entertainment and the frequent disappointment of hopeful aspiration and dismal fate. They are deeply metafictional with explicit echoes of actual past myths from many cultures around our world. But these are dark ugly tales, gentle reader, not for the eyes of those who prefer happy endings or romances.

Profile Image for YouKneeK.
644 reviews79 followers
September 17, 2017
I thought this was a very clever and unique book. At least, I’ve never read anything like it. It tells a lot of stories, I couldn’t say how many, but definitely more than a dozen. However, this is not an anthology. It’s layer upon layer upon layer of related stories nested inside each other.

The framing story is about a lonely girl who people shun because they believe she’s a demon. A curious boy approaches her and, over the course of a few days, she tells him two stories. Each of the two stories takes up about half of the book. Within each story, some of the characters tell other stories. Within those stories, somebody tells another story. These stories often tell the backstory of a particular character, so you’re sort of gaining more and more history, going backwards in time as you go forward in the book. Periodically, the book returns to the higher layers to continue those stories, and then it possibly goes back into the same lower layers to finish incomplete stories there, or else it starts a new inner story with a new set of layers. Some of the different branches were only moderately related, but there were lots of little connections here and there which were fun to watch for.

Sound confusing? It really wasn’t. The first main story never went more than 5 layers deep. The second main story went up to 7 layers deep a couple times. When I first realized the structure of the book, I was a little worried that I would get confused, so I started checking myself each time the story went into a deeper layer, recounting to myself the steps that had led there. I was always able to do so quickly and without confusion, and I think that process helped me keep it all straight in my head. I could see where some people might find this book disorienting, though. For me, it may have helped that this type of thought process is part of my day job as a programmer; I kept making comparisons to it while I was reading. Reading this was kind of like keeping track of the call stack while reading or debugging a program as it progresses forward and backward through layers of subroutines.

The stories all borrow heavily from fairy tales. This was especially noticeable to me since I had read through The Complete Grimm’s Fairy Tales earlier this year. It really isn’t a retelling of any of those stories, but there were lots of little nods, sometimes with similarities and sometimes with twists, and with the tiniest hint of satire. Unlike many of the Grimm’s tales, however, this book was internally consistent, the characters’ actions made sense, and it never felt silly.

I do still have a little bit of Fairy Tale Fatigue from the Grimm’s book though, so that might have impacted my enjoyment of some of the stories. Some layers were more interesting than others, so the book didn’t always hold my interest, which is the main reason I’m not rating it higher.
Profile Image for Jammies.
134 reviews13 followers
March 8, 2010
Oh dear, this is going to be a hard one to finish. I suppose I should not be too terribly surprised that an author who spells her first name "Catherynne" is addicted to metaphor, but a minimum of one per paragraph? It's the literary equivalent of adding a sugared cherry on top of a thickly-iced ice cream cake--far too much!

* * *

The story-within-a-story is a venerable and venerated technique, but when taken to extremes, it's just torturous. Ms. Valente has overused the embedding to the point where simply trying to keep track of which story is current is agonizing, and every few pages, I found myself rolling my eyes and thinking "Oh not again!" as a new tale began.
Profile Image for Nicole.
682 reviews19 followers
June 2, 2008
The tales told to the young Prince come from the tattoos inked on the skin of a young woman. These same strange tattoos that are keeping her isolated from the rest of the sultan's household, make her seem fascinating to the prince. Each night he sneaks out to meet with her in the Sultan's gardens.

This book is two series of interwoven, short, personal tales told from the tattoos. Tales that ultimately braid together. Like Chaucer's Canterbury Tales there is a series of people's pilgrimages told in first person. The stories are intermittent and interspersed but linear despite their interrupted telling. Although the stories are being related in first person by various people they are really told that way by one girl to one boy. He is escaping to bright visions of the larger world adults live in. She is seeking acceptance in any world.
I began reading this book and immediately was repelled by the awkward and repeated use of overwrought similes. Every thing is like something else, this is arresting and distracts from the flow. The first few tales continued in this fashion but then the descriptive style became more varied and less self consciously dramatic. My least favorite description that irks me still was "desultory eyes". How do a pair of eyes lack consistency do they move disjointedly? The only way I could conceive of this fitting is if they wandered in differing directions with disconnected focus but this did not seem to be the point being made in the context.
I kept thinking I would put this book down but I found myself drawn back to the complexity of the telling even if I did skim passages as soon as they threatened an excess of difficult descriptions.
This book missed being very good by an excessive verbosity and awkward English but despite this the story's contents are worth the time to read. Her creatures were not just relating good stories but also help us look at normal behavior and why it is desirable or not. How any individual's goals could influence disparate lives.
I will read the sequel to see where this author goes with her ingenious, metaphorical monsters and her various humans.
Profile Image for An EyeYii.
3,491 reviews57 followers
August 20, 2012
"In the Garden" lives an almost woman abandoned as a toddler when an inky mask appeared across her eyes. Catherynne M. (Why? Are not middle initials customarily to distinguish common names?) Valente writes like a computer programmed to arbitrarily join a list of adjectives with nouns, and randomly extract one role as narrator to generate a new not-story.

Long lasting tales crossing cultures speak to basic eternal human emotions and conflicts. Soap operas are the most popular longest running shows in every country because they appeal to our hope, curiosity, human essence. This is gibberish bits imitating such. Hints of origin myths by references to stars and sky. Lewis Carroll's Jabberwocky makes more sense.

The girl says her markings are stories and entices a pampered prince to stay and listen. His elder sister in charge drags him away, but he slips back. Nonsensical descriptions such as ebony dust like crystal snow, pale stone like dark ice, and verse vissa are bad from the start.

First story, a witch, prince, and gray goose who shapeshifts to a girl. Chop fingers, smash heads, ooey gooey gore. Blood, light and magic flow. Witch starts another story about a witch, prince, and man formerly white bear. Fluids flow. Another witch starts another story about another and another ad nauseum. Every few pages tangle in more blather. I skipped to the end, unhappy despite the goose-girl and bear-man transforming back, together on a ship, after impossible predictions are fulfilled.
Profile Image for T.D. Whittle.
Author 3 books190 followers
June 19, 2017
Marvelous, in the truest sense of the word. I am a Valente fan, my favourite of hers being Palimpsest, but also loving The Melancholy of Mechagirl, Deathless, and The Fairyland Series. I am loyal even to Radiance because, although I could not engage with all of it, much of it I did, and its sense of place, mood, and imagery have stayed with me.

Like all of Valente's writing, In the Night Garden is metaphorically and visually evocative and potent. If you enjoyed The Arabian Nights: Tales of 1001 Nights, Volume 1, then you will probably enjoy this book. It's similarly styled (the domineering sister in Night Garden is even named Dinarzhad) but with all of Valente's motifs and playfulness.
Profile Image for Kat.
940 reviews
December 1, 2018
They say there's a first for everything. And so for the first time ever I happen to hate a dreamy book full of fairy-tales with a fiery passion. What a chore to wade through. Wish I'd taken a peek at the 1 star reviews before excitedly galloping off to Kobo to get my paws on this. Although Palimpsest is easily as disorientating and impenetrable, at least the writing in that one was gorgeously lush.
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