The Habitation of the Blessed by Catherynne M. Valente is the first volume in A Dirge for Prester John. The books in this trilogy will be coming out about a year apart with the second volume, The Folded World, available in November 2011 and the third volume, The Spindle of Necessity, available in November 2012. This trilogy is based on the legends about Prester John, a priest rumored to rule over a paradise in India containing wonders such as a Fountain of Youth. A fake document supposedly written by Prester John was discovered in the twelfth century, and these novels explore what it may have been like if this letter was actually a real account of a place that in fact existed.
In the year 1699, Hiob von Luzern and a group of other priests traveled to India in search of Prester John, the great king who had riches and immortality. It’s a rough journey and many die, but it would all seem worthwhile to Hiob for a chance to meet Prester John and see his kingdom. However, once he arrives in a village and inquires about where to find him, he is simply told by the lady that the one whom he seeks is gone.
After a meal at the lady’s house, she takes Hiob alone to a wondrous tree that grows books instead of fruit. In his excitement, Hiob snatches a book and begins reading it only to find a worm got there first and ate part of the book. He is then allowed to select three books from the tree, which he chooses carefully by looking for the ones without wormholes and missing parts. Immediately, he begins reading the first of these volumes and is pleased to find it is written by John himself, although he is dismayed to see that the first few lines say the book was copied by the priest’s wife, Hagia. Regardless, he eagerly begins reading the story, which is an account of a journey made by John in which he found himself in an unusual land populated by intelligent creatures who are not human. The other two volumes he selected are accounts by Hagia and Imtithal, who are both residents of the unusual land John wandered into.
Unfortunately, as amazing as books that grow on trees are (I so wanted a book tree!), they do have one major disadvantage – just like fruit, they begin to rot once plucked from the tree. In an effort to get as much information as possible from these three books before they become unreadable, Hiob alternates copying from each of them as he discovers the truth about Prester John.
While the stories are completely different, the narrative structure and writing of The Habitation of the Blessed are very similar to The Orphan’s Tales: In the Night Garden. Like Valente’s earlier novel, the structure is not linear although the storyline is much less convoluted than In the Night Garden, which was tales within tales within more tales to the point where it was difficult to keep track of the connections between all of them. The Habitation of the Blessed contains three stories about Prester John and the inhabitants of the place he stumbles upon. These stories are threaded throughout another story, which is the search for the priest and his fabled paradise that lead to the discovery of the books containing these other tales. While these three stories overlap, they are separated and easier to follow since they are mainly told by progressing through the timeline instead of jumping back and forth a lot.
Also like In the Night Garden, The Habitation of the Blessed tells an imaginative story brimming with beautiful imagery. Due to the abundance of description, it does seem to move rather slowly at times, especially toward the beginning of John’s story. This may have also been because I found John the least interesting to read about. Out of the three who told tales of the kingdom, he is the only human but mostly his story didn’t draw me in as much because he’s kind of an ass. Here he is in a completely unusual world that challenges everything he ever thought he knew and all he can think about is converting the inhabitants. He doesn’t really listen to them – his way is right and what he’s always believed is unshakable. It completely makes sense with his character since some people are like that, but he’s not always enjoyable to read about. His parts did get easier to read toward the end, mainly due to the fact that a lot more started to happen.
In contrast, the priest Hiob who copied the stories was far less obnoxious, largely because he held beliefs that conflicted with his discovery but wasn’t going to just ignore his findings and carry on regardless. It was clear that he was upset by his discoveries and how they challenged his pre-existing notions about the world, but he was also more adaptable. From the opening lines, it’s apparent he’s suffered some great disappointment in his search for his tale:
I am a very bad historian. But I am a very good miserable old man. I sit at the end of the world, close enough to see my shriveled old legs hang over the bony ridge of it. I came so far for gold and light and a story the size of the sky. But I have managed to gather for myself only a basket of ash and a kind of empty sorrow, that the world is not how I wished it to be. The death of faith is tasteless, like dust. [pp. 5]
Yet he also has an admirable dedication to the truth and is not willing to compromise, even if what he has learned deeply disturbs him:
I could sell my soul to the demons of historiography and change this tale to suit my dreams. I could do it and no one would think less of me. It has been done before, after all. But before my Lord I lay the pain and anguish of the truth, and ask only to be done with it all. [pp. 6]
Hiob’s love of knowledge leads him to learn all he can from the books on the tree and his devotion to learning leads to an obsession with these stories – and makes him a far more sympathetic character than Prester John.
Of the four perspectives in the novel, my favorite was easily that of Imtithal, who told of her time as a caretaker to the royal family. Imtithal’s story had the most warmth and humor as she relates quibbles involving the children, particularly the antics of the contrary Houd. She had so much compassion for these children, and she sacrificed her inclination to be a listener to become a storyteller. Even so, she is an observer by nature and shares some insightful reflections based on her job as a nanny:
Children wish to know where they come from. It is a burning, terrible question for them, and they will phrase it a hundred ways: Why is the grass green? (Why am I not green?) Why does the wind blow? (Why do I blow and blow and make no storms or snap flowers from the stem?) Why do we live in a city? (Why am I myself and not some other child?) [pp. 67]
After Imtithal, Hagia’s writings were the most fascinating. Hagia’s book is the main source of information on the customs of the land found by Prester John. It’s from Hagia that we learn about the Fountain of the Youth and the rituals young people undertook in going there as she details her own childhood experience. She tells us of boredom as a side effect of immortality and the arrangements made for compensating. It’s not all about the culture, though, since we are also told of her relationships and how she is both attracted to and repelled by Prester John.
While it is a gorgeous, introspective book, I didn’t find it quite as compelling as The Orphan’s Tales: In the Night Garden partially because of Prester John’s parts and the slow buildup. After the next book, I may change my mind, though, since it feels like it’s getting to the heart of the story for the last half of the novel. The ending, the beautiful writing, the legends, and the characters of Hagia and Imtithal have me eager to read volume 2.
My Rating: 8/10
Where I got my reading copy: Review copy from the publisher.