Ray Gun Reviews
SF/F reviews — and ray guns!

In the Night Garden by Catherynne M. Valente

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In the Night Garden by Catherynne M. Valente
Spectra, 2006, 496pp.

In the palace garden lives a girl. She bears an unusual birthmark — dark bands around her eyes and over her eyelids. All of the palace thinks her cursed and do not want her curse to touch them. But a young prince proves brave enough to speak to her. He finds out that these black marks are actually the words of stories, imprinted on her eyes. The prince asks to hear one of the tales, and the girl agrees. Much as in life, one story leads to another, and another, and another…

In the Night Garden is the first volume in Catherynne M. Valente’s story sequence called The Orphan’s Tales. The stories the girl tells are full of magical fantasy, with transformations and talking animals and good witches and evil kings. Valente tells her story in the form of nested tales, reminiscent of the narrative structure of the Arabian Nights.

However, this is no pastiche, no fictional arabesque. Valente has drawn from myth and folklore around the world to weave together a fantasy cosmos of her own. There is a rich, subtle sensuality to Valente’s world, never as explicit as in the unbowdlerized Arabian Nights. The stories strike me as often slyly subversive of the fairy tale values of some cultures. A chimerical being may be less monstrous than a human, and a princess may rescue herself with no prince in sight. However, keeping with all folktale traditions, people and things in In the Night Garden are rarely what they seem.

Valente’s prose is beautiful, appropriate to her theme but with a stunning…clarity, for lack of a better word. Every word she writes is at the service of the story; the writing is transparent to the tales. She handles the nested narration deftly. While I am not sure how many people are used to that story structure these days, I would think that most of our familiarity with hypertext makes it possible for The Orphan’s Tales to find a wider appreciative audience than it might have fifteen or even ten years ago.

I heartily recommend In the Night Garden for all lovers of story.

(Reviewed by Donald Jacob Uitvlugt)

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