In the Night Garden comprises the first half of Catherynne M. Valente’s The Orphan’s Tales duology. The second volume, In the Cities of Coin and Spice, was released in 2007. Often compared to The Arabian Nights for its style of stories within a story, In the Night Garden was nominated for the 2007 World Fantasy Awards and won the 2006 Tiptree Award. The book itself is very beautiful with some illustrations by Michael Kaluta, and its actual contents are also very impressive – full of imaginative, intertwined fairy tales told in a lush prose style.
It’s difficult to describe the plot of In the Night Garden since it is a series of interconnected stories rather than a novel with a straightforward plot line. It begins with a young girl who was shunned for the black marks around her eyes that most believed marked her as a demon. She wanders the palace gardens of the sultan by herself for thirteen years until one of the sultan’s sons is curious enough to ask her why her eyes are so dark. Lonely after her years of solitude, the girl tells him that her eyes were not always that way but contain stories put there by a spirit. The boy begs her to tell him just one of these tales and is so spellbound by them that he keeps seeking her to hear more.
There are two main stories within this volume that the girl tells the boy – The Book of the Steppe and The Book of the Sea. Although these two are separated, the second story does tie in with the first. With so many stories within stories, the book is mostly comprised of short sections that switch between viewpoints often. For instance, The Book of the Steppe starts with the girl, then moves on to a short section about a prince who is dissatisfied with his wealth and leaves his home. He soon becomes hungry and breaks the neck of a goose in order to feed himself. However, the prince is then confronted by a witch claiming the goose is her daughter and is horrified to see the bird has turned into a young woman. After this, the witch begins telling a tale, then within her tale she tells a story told to her by her grandmother. The book continues to go back and forth between these tales but within them are woven in tales belonging to all sorts of other characters – a wolf, a tavern-keeper, a beast-maiden, a marsh king and many others. Interspersed throughout all these are brief interludes containing the girl and the boy and sometimes the boy’s sister, who punishes him for visiting the girl in the garden.
Because of this format, this is a book I wish I had picked up when I had more time to dedicate to reading instead of when I only had a few moments here and there. This is really a book that demands some actual time to sit down and read in large chunks. Also, I’d recommend reading it in a relatively short timespan because there are parts that tie together and it helps to remember what happened in the previous stories. Due to the timing of when I started reading this, it took me a month to finish it. When I was reading the second story told by the girl, it kept triggering memories of the first story but it had been long enough since I’d read it that I found myself flipping around a lot trying to remember where I’d read about that character or event earlier. So while I would definitely encourage people to read this book, I would also encourage them not to start it while in the midst of vacation/wedding planning as I did – wait until there’s time to savor it.
In the Night Garden is very well-written with some beautiful prose and some very nice touches of humor throughout it, particularly when dealing with conventions of fantasy tales. One of my favorite sections was the Marsh King remembering when a prince came to slay his friend the Beast. Since Beast had never bothered this prince at all, the king asked why he came to dispose of him:
“I am a Prince,” he replied, being rather dense. “It is the function of a Prince – value A – to kill monsters – value B – for the purpose of establishing order – value C – and maintaining a steady supply of maidens – value D. If one inserts the derivative of value A (Prince) into the equation y equals BC plus CD squared, and sets it equal to zero, giving the apex of the parabola, namely, the point of intersection between A (Prince) and B (Monster), one determines value E – a stable kingdom. It is all very complicated, and if you have a chart handy, I can graph it for you.” (pp. 110 – 111)
This scene continues with a discussion about civilization and the definition of a monster that must be killed and is very amusing. Many of the characters had great storytelling voices and the Marsh King was one I especially enjoyed.
This book is full of imagination – anything can happen. Talking stars and animals, men with dogs’ heads, maidens with animal parts, and other wonders are contained within the pages. It can also be dark at times and not all the stories are happy. Other aspects of the book that I enjoyed were the little feminist twists and the “Cinderella” story. Throughout the book, there are parts where it breaks out of the mold of traditional male/female roles that are often seen in fantasy but it is not overdone since it’s the way things happen – occasionally, the woman is the stronger one or the one finding and carrying the man away. I love retold fairy tales and really enjoyed the version of “Cinderella” in which no woman wanted to be the “lucky” one selected when the wizard was searching for an apprentice.
The only issue I had with the book is that since there are so many interconnected stories with so many different characters, there is no time to really connect with any one of them. I’m not saying that is a flaw since it is just the nature of this type of structure, but as someone who reads primarily for characters, I did miss really getting to know some of them.
In the Night Garden is a brilliant, unique book containing many tales woven together, adventure, and wonder. It has that quality of letting go of reality common that makes young adult books so endearing yet it seems to be written for an older audience. I’ll definitely read the next book and have already ordered it.