The Habitation of the Blessed
by Catherynne M. Valente
269pp (Trade Paperback)
My Rating: 8/10
Amazon Rating: 5/5
LibraryThing Rating: 4/5
Goodreads Rating: 4.64/5
 

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.

Read the first three chapters

Other Reviews:

The King of Attolia is the third book in the Queen’s Thief series by Megan Whalen Turner.  The first two books in this YA fantasy series are The Thief and The Queen of Attolia, respectively.  A Conspiracy of Kings, the fourth book, came out in hardcover earlier this year.  According to Goodreads, a fifth book is planned but it has no title listed and I haven’t been able to find any further details on it.

Since it’s better to know less about the plot when reading these books, I’m going to skip the usual plot description and just move right on to thoughts on this book and how it compares to the rest of the books in the series.  This review is going to be at least a little vague to try to avoid spoilers.

The King of Attolia picks up shortly after the end of the second book.  I’d recommend reading the books in order even though the second and third books in the Queen’s Thief series are far more mature and better crafted than the first.  Reading the second or third book first would completely spoil the first book, which is a good story although it takes reading to the end to fully appreciate it.  The Thief, which won the Newbery Honor Award in 1997, seems like a straightforward quest fantasy until the twist ending and is the simplest of the three books.  The next book, The Queen of Attolia, has more complexity as it deals with both nations and individuals while leaving so much open to interpretation until the end.  It remains my favorite in the series since it had the most emotional resonance with me, and so much of the wording was just perfect – the way it could have double meanings and kept me guessing about which one was correct.  The King of Attolia is smaller scale and mostly focused on individuals and political scheming.  While I very much enjoyed it and wanted the next book after finishing it, it didn’t have me rereading and savoring every word the same way as The Queen of Attolia did – but like the previous book it did leave me very impressed with Megan Whalen Turner’s storytelling ability.

The prose is not beautifully written, more to the point than flashy, but Turner excels at weaving a story that is simply told yet elaborate.  Much of the story’s power is in what she chooses to reveal and when, giving parts of the story ambiguity until the conclusion.  Readers of the previous books will have a better idea of what is going on in The King of Attolia since they know what to expect unlike the main narrator, who begins with no knowledge of Eugenides’ character and only observes what he sees in this book.  Although he does suspect pretty close to the beginning that Eugenides may not be quite as dense as rumors say, he still does not know the full extent of his capabilities.  Even with several clues that more is going on behind the scenes than we are shown, the significance of some scenes and how it will play out remains mysterious for quite some time.  With this technique, Turner takes a story that is mostly political and character-oriented without a lot of action and makes it suspenseful.

Mystery also adds to the allure of the central figure in the books, Eugenides.  He’s not completely unknown by the end (or to those who have read the other books), but in spite of being the person the entire story revolves around, we never really get to know a lot of what he’s thinking about.  Most of the story is told from the perspective of a member of the Queen’s Guard, Costis, and he tells us what he thinks of Eugenides.  There are even scenes in which we see what some of the other characters think of Eugenides, such as Relius the Secretary of the Guard.  Even though there is occasionally a part that involves Eugenides without showing him from the viewpoint of a different character, it just relates conversations and actions.  There’s a certain amount of separation between the reader and Eugenides, and like these other viewpoint characters, we observe Eugenides but never really know what’s going on inside his head. This was even largely true in The Thief, which was told from the perspective of Eugenides, since he wasn’t exactly a reliable narrator and omitted a lot of important details.  He’s not exactly known for truthfulness:

 

She released a sigh of frustration and asked reluctantly for the truth. “Were you lying?”

“I never lie,” he said piously.  “About what?”

“The sand, the snake.”

For a young man who never lied, he seemed surprisingly unoffended by the question. [Attolia and Eugenides, pp. 24]

In spite of the fact that I don’t feel that I know Eugenides as well as I’d like to, I think it really works in these books as it adds some to his mystique.  He’s one of those manipulative, larger than life characters who seems too good at everything to be true, and leaving him a little mysterious makes it easier to see him on that pedestal.  Since we don’t know a lot about him, it makes it appear more likely that maybe there is something he doesn’t do right – but because we don’t get his unadulterated perspective, perhaps we just don’t get to see those parts.  Yet in this book he’s also easy to sympathize with because he still clearly has problems – recurring nightmares, homesickness, and the side effect that getting what he desired also forced him into a role he doesn’t want.  There’s a theme of inability to escape fate that makes him much easier to empathize with.

Fantasy readers may want to be aware that this is light on the fantasy – the main fantastic elements in all three books involves somewhat brief appearances by gods.  The setting is a pseudo-Greece with a similar but entirely different pantheon of gods and goddesses, and there is at least one story told in each book involving a tale involving deities or the world mythology.

While The Queen of Attolia remains my personal favorite in this series, The King of Attolia is nearly as good with a fun storyline, suspense, scheming, and great characters.  It’s a very clever book with some great dialogue, and I finished it with a combination of satisfaction and sadness – satisfaction because it was so engaging and sadness because there’s only one book left in the series to read.

My Rating: 8/10

Where I got my reading copy: I bought it.

Reviews of other books in this series:

  1. The Thief
  2. The Queen of Attolia

Other reviews of The King of Attolia:

Dec
04
2010

For the second week in a row, there are no new books for the Sunday post so I’m hoping to get a review up instead.  In the meantime, here are some various bits of news or other interesting links I’ve seen lately.


Every year from December to early January, The Book Smugglers hold their annual Smugglivus celebration. This includes guest posts from bloggers and authors in addition to their own end of the year discussions on favorite books.  It started this week and there have been some excellent posts so far including but not limited to the following: Jessica of Read React Review wrote about the similarities between Hanukkah and popular fiction, Harry of Temple Library Reviews discussed some of his favorite books read this year, and a guest post by author Catherynne M. Valente.

Tor.com has an excerpt from The Habitation of the Blessed by Catherynne M. Valente, which is a great book with beautiful imagery and a fascinating world mythology.  (It’s one of the books I’m working on reviewing now.)

Seanan McGuire has sold the first two books in another urban fantasy series, InCryptid, about a family of cryptozoologists simultaneously working to protect the cryptids and humanity from each other.  The titles of these books are Discount Armageddon and Midnight Blue-Light Special.

Chachic’s Book Nook is giving away signed copies of The Thief, The Queen of Attolia, and The King of Attolia by Megan Whalen Turner.  The contest is open internationally, and the winner is just asked to post a review of the books somewhere in return.  These are some very good young adult books – I love how Turner leaves out all the details of what is happening until the very end and the second and third books in particular are superb.

io9.com asks if Joan Vinge’s The Snow Queen the girl power equivalent of Star Wars.  I love The Snow Queen – it was my favorite book read in 2009 and one of my favorites ever.

Dec
01
2010

November has officially come to a close with only 3 books completed during the month.  I was going to hold off on this post since I was hoping to have a review up tonight, but I keep arguing with myself about it and it’s not going to be done tonight.  Oh well!

Books read in November are:

44. Resenting the Hero by Moira J. Moore (review)
45. The Habitation of the Blessed by Catherynne Valente (review forthcoming)
46. The King of Attolia by Megan Whalen Turner (review forthcoming – if I can ever make up my mind about what I want to say about it)

Favorite book of the month: Eek, that’s a tough one.  I liked all of these quite a bit (this has actually been a great reading year for me other than not reading quite as many books as the past couple years – I’ve really liked the vast majority of what I’ve read).  It’s definitely either The Habitation of the Blessed or The King of Attolia, but I’m not sure which I liked better.  They’re very different books and I liked them both for very different reasons.  So for now it’s a tie.

I’m hoping to read 4 books in December to make it to 50 books, but I’m not sure if that will happen.  December is always my worst reading month because of being busy due to the holidays and I still need to read the rather lengthy Duma Key, which I promised a friend I’d read by the end of the year (we each picked 3 books for each other to read and this is the last one of them I haven’t read).  Next year I’m doing away with reading goals since I’ve been horrible at meeting my own – my case of book ADD is too severe, I’m afraid, especially if I have a crazy year like this one (moving twice in one year was really not in my plans – and I hope it never is ever again).

What did you read in November?

Nov
28
2010

I hope everyone who celebrated it had a great Thanksgiving and the rest of you had a great week!  With the holiday I was hoping to get all kinds of blogging done but I have to admit I was lazy and did some reading but not a lot of reviewing.  I did finish The Habitation of the Blessed by Catherynne Valente and The King of Attolia by Megan Whalen Turner so I’m hoping there will be reviews of those two books up soon.  Now I’m starting Midsummer Night by Freda Warrington, and I need to read Duma Key by Stephen King before the end of the year.  Those are both fairly long, especially the latter, so I have a feeling I’ll be adding a lot of shorter books to the mix in December.

Nov
22
2010

It’s probably going to be a bit quiet here until the holiday is over, but in the meantime here’s some links of interest.

Seeing a release date for The Tempering of Men caused me to see if I could find a date for Sarah Monette’s next book.  Her next novel is titled The Goblin Emperor and will be written under the name Katherine Addison.  According to a recent post on her blog, it is tentatively scheduled for Spring 2012.  I cannot wait!

Also on Sarah Monette’s blog, she announced that she has the rights to Melusine and The Virtu back and is looking to get them both back into print. This is fantastic news and I really hope this happens so that new readers can find these two books.  She did say if she can’t find another publisher, she will self publish them so they are available to those who want to read them, though.

Seanan McGuire got to show off the cover for Deadline today.  This will be the second book in her Newsflesh series written under the name Mira Grant.  It’s scheduled for May 2011.

Catherynne M. Valente also posted the cover for her upcoming novel, Deathless.  It’s coming out in March 2011.

I received my newsletter about new books available for pre-order through The Signed Page recently and they have some great books coming up – River Marked by Patricia Briggs, Wise Man’s Fear by Patrick Rothfuss, and Pale Demon by Kim Harrison to name a few.  They also have signed copies of Cryoburn by Lois McMaster Bujold in stock.