The Orphan's Tales duology - Catherynne M Valente
In the Night Garden
In the Cities of Coin and Spice
These books were recommended to me as some good holiday reading, and I'm very glad they were. Valente has been writing for a few years now, but seems to have been rather overlooked in favour of the Big New Names, and frankly that's a damn shame. With this duology, she has reworked the Scheherezade concept of nested and intertwining stories, and used this to weave together a whole load of other fairytale tropes into a great and glorious tapestry.
The Scheherezade character is a nameless orphan girl who dwells in the gardens of the Sultan's palace, and by night is visited by a young prince who longs to hear her stories, despite the threats of his elder sister Dinarzad. The stories she tells are full of fairytale-standard motifs from all kinds of cultures - firebirds, goose-girls, djinn, shape-shifting bears, wolf spirit guides - familiar on the surface, but all warped in dark and interesting ways. The way that the stories link together (right through both books) is very cleverly done, and the writing is absolutely gorgeous.
When it was over none of them were left; the room was empty as a prison cell. I wanted to feel sick. I wanted to delicately retch in the corner or feel faint, collapse in guilt. But I was not sick or faint, and the creatures in me exulted. Maidens stand still, they are lovely statues and all admire them. Witches do not stand still. I was neither, but better that I err on the side of witchery, witchery that unlocks towers and empties ships.
It was easy, once I had decided that, to slip into the captain's quarters and into that soft bed at last. The pillow was cool on my face, the blood of my hair dried and black against the fabric. I did not wait for him to wake, and I did not need a hidden knife. The bear opened him up like a beehive.
I sailed a ghost ship back into Muireann port.
Fairy tales have always been fairly female-centric, with their focus on princesses, stepmothers and scullery maids, and Valente has played this angle for all it's worth. Female power in all its manifestations plays a large part throughout the stories, but it's no embarrassing "men bad, women good!" Sheri S Tepper-style polemic, and no preachiness is in evidence. The character of Dinarzad was particularly interesting; even though she only got a few mentions in between the stories, as a person in the "real" world her fate seemed much more relevant than the people in the tales. I've always been a fan of twisted and updated fairy tales, so this was pretty much guaranteed to please, but I'd recommend The Orphan's Tales to anyone who likes elegantly-written fantasy, and I'll certainly be looking out for more of Valente's work.