A mysterious girl in the royal extended family, some say a demon because of disturbing markings around her eyes, is banished from the palace. A very young prince discovers her living in the gardens on the kindness of servants.
Like all princes, even ones that don’t reach the waist of their eldest sister, he wants to save her. But the only way to remove the demon’s markings from her eyes is for her to tell, bit by bit, the stories written upon them.
Thus begins The Orphan’s Tales, a well-woven tapestry of fairytales-within-fairytales in the world of Ajanabh, both like and unlike its inspiration, The Arabian Nights.
The stunning Orphan’s Tales, by Catherynne M. Valente, is a two book work (in the way that Lord of the Rings is a three volume book), comprised of In the Night Garden and In the Cities of Coin and Spice (both Spectra Books). Her writing is a study in classicism—the rich retooling of stories either centering around or inspired by a wide variety of classics, from Asian folklore like Japan’s The Grass-Cutting Sword to fairy tales from England to Germany, from Norway to Russia, from the Middle East to Africa. The versatility of Valente’s knowledge shines bright as stars.
Unlike most modern retellings, she preserves the style and sense of world inherent in the originals—not simply copying them, but adopting them to an almost parallel world; they have their own histories and world-building. In Ajanabh the myths are quite different, leading to sensibilities that are familiar without merely mirroring their fantastic analogues.
The most striking difference is the base creation myth: the Night Sky was a black mare who tore stars into her skin—holes that filled with shining light from her blood. When she escaped the sky to explore the earth she created, she abandoned the stars. And, lonely and frightened, in despair, innocence, and arrogance, the stars descended to follow her—and thereafter ignite the beginning of storylines spanning continents and eras.
The familiarities to our fairytales and fantasies adapt to this setting beautifully. Because Valente draws upon many different wells of inspiration, we not only have dragons and talking (sometimes transformed) animals, but also kitsune and kappa, firebirds and ever-fruitful gardens, horse and witch tales paleological in origin, slave wizards and a sainted pirate—and still more.
These elements intertwine with the new stories of the stars, the latter the weft that holds together the warp of the former, in a dangerously addictive weaving. A kitsune grows up to be a pirate after she assists a dying star; orphaned children don’t end up in the woods, but in a disturbing undertow of the real world, working in sweatshops that generate money from the bones of the dead; a shaman of a horse tribe confronts, years later, a wayward questing prince as an old witch in a cottage.
Valente is also quite cruel in adopting the interleaving story-built-upon-story structure from Arabian Nights. There are four major stories in the two books of The Orphan’s Tales, and in all of them there are cliffhangers and lead-ins to other tales that drive the reader (or the frightened prince into staying, or the cruel husband into not chopping your head off) to read, and read, and read.
Not all sensibilities of the old tales are imported into The Orphan’s Tales. There is a sympathy for monsters and princesses, turning them into deeper characters with their own personalities and struggles, rather than simply the next item to check off on a quest. An ugly witch spearheads the first of the four major framing stories, introducing a quirky and humorous leucrotta1, and a princess who is creepily monstrous2. The leucrotta acts as a Jeeves to a literal kingfisher. A serpent goddess’ slaughter at the hands of an unwise and fearful husband3 is the undercurrent for much of the world’s mythology. A manticore is captured as a kitten and escapes to be part of a traveling play. And so on.
A tour de force of new fairytales, The Orphan’s Tales will absorb you into itself, only to let you go two books later, and you will miss it. Like all good stories.