Night Shade Books, 2010, approx. 95,000 words.
The Habitation of the Blessed: A Dirge for Prester John Volume 1
This is the story of a place that never was: the kingdom of Prester John, the utopia described by an anonymous, twelfth-century document which captured the imagination of the medieval world and drove hundreds of lost souls to seek out its secrets, inspiring explorers, missionaries, and kings for centuries. But what if it were all true? What if there was such a place, and a poor, broken priest once stumbled past its borders, discovering, not a Christian paradise, but a country where everything is possible, immortality is easily had, and the Western world is nothing but a dim and distant dream?
Brother Hiob of Luzerne, on missionary work in the Himalayan wilderness on the eve of the eighteenth century, discovers a village guarding a miraculous tree whose branches sprout books instead of fruit. These strange books chronicle the history of the kingdom of Prester John, and Hiob becomes obsessed with the tales they tell. The Habitation of the Blessed recounts the fragmented narratives found within these living volumes, revealing the life of a priest named John, and his rise to power in this country of impossible richness. John's tale weaves together with the confessions of his wife Hagia, a blemmye--a headless creature who carried her face on her chest--as well as the tender, jeweled nursery stories of Imtithal, nanny to the royal family. Hugo and World Fantasy award nominee Catherynne M. Valente reimagines the legends of Prester John in this stunning tour de force.
Prester John was perhaps one of the earliest examples of an urban legend growing out of all proportion. For centuries, many Europeans believed that this fabled Christian ruler of a kingdom in the far Orient was real. Catherynne Valente has created a world in which he was, and The Habitation of the Blessed tells the tale of how a heretic monk discovered the land of Pentexore, and became its king.
This book has much of the same imaginative density as The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, but it's a lot harder to wade through. That's not to say it's a bad read; far from it. But there were times when the prose bordered on florid, so full of imaginings and medieval allegory come to life that it was hard to see the story for the bestiary running rampant through the pages.
The land of Pentexore is a magical one too fantastic for a mere fantasy novelist to invent; it comes straight from medieval myth. Inhabited by blemmyae, sciopods, panotii, cametenna, astomii, amyctryae, meta-collinarum, and almost mundane-by-comparison creatures such as gryphons, giants, red and white lions, and innumerable other creatures, Pentexore's inhabitants are immortal, peaceful, and completely ignorant of the Western world of Christendom from which John comes.
The Habitation of the Blessed is narrated by three individuals, each of them being transcribed by a meta-narrator, a monk named Hiob Von Luzern who in 1699 has discovered three most peculiar volumes. They are accounts of Prester John's kingdom, or rather, how it came to be his kingdom. One is written by John himself, one by a blemmye named Hagia, who is to become his wife, and one by a panotii named Imtithal.
The sky poured the first of its sweet-sour light over a copse of trees, each of them withered and twisted and grotesque in equal parts. Some trunks glowered blackly, slick with grease, and as I came near I saw them to be cannons, worked in fine designs like those of some great Emperor’s ship, and among their silvery leaves hung fruit like shot. In the wood of others I perceived arched windows and platforms on which small birds sang and pecked—these trees were fashioned like siege towers, the color of baked mudbrick, shrunken and warped as all living things may be, but nonetheless, arrows that might have flown from their heights thatched themselves into branches, and pitch-berries dripped from their boughs. Worse yet were the horse-trees, whose bark bristled like chestnut pelts, their long, whip-like leaves snapping at passing flies. The devilish fruit grinned at me: horse-heads, in full silver armor and bits, their plates clinking lightly in the wind. One snorted. I stared at the war-garden as it stared back at me, for many of the trees—which I shudder to relate—were soldier-oaks, and knight-elms, swords and helmets crowned with long white plumes sprouting from their foliage, and here and there, here and there I thought myself to see brown eyes and blue peeking among the thick green leaves.
A good man would turn away from such a clearly infernal presence. A good man, on returning home, could say: though I starved and thirsted I did not so much as look at that serpent’s orchard. A good man would have let the sun hollow his body and think nothing of how if a thing grows it must be possible to eat it, no matter how strange, and given enough days to starve in the desert, he might succumb to that awful, awful fruit.
But the flesh, the flesh may err, and I am not, I am not, I was never a good man.
I dug my nails into the fleshy wood of the cannon-tree; it gave beneath my fingers, slushy, slimed, and beneath the grease I felt hard iron. I reached up and from the harsh boughs, twisted and spiked as all desert trees are, pulled a heavy fruit, round and black and pitted as any cannon-shot I have known. I tested it; it was warm, solid, a little soft. Oh, Mother of Us All, how must you have stood, at that first tree, testing the weight of a fig in your hand, wondering what world might crack open at the meeting of your jaws in that sweet, seedy thing?
I bit. The charcoal skin of it gave, a crackly, papery crust. Within, the meat of it melted into my mouth, powdery, soft, but oh, the spice of it bloomed in my senses, a black pepper snapping on my tongue, an overwhelming, dusky sweetness, worse and better than any plum, and the metal pit tanged the flesh all through. Black juice trickled down my chin, into my beard, staining my teeth. I drank it, slurping, slovenly, and reached for more. I stripped the bark from the cannon-trunk, and this, too, I found good, a kind of coppery cinnamon. I dashed to the siege-engine tree, and chewed with relish the sticky pitch-berries, treacle-thick and bitter, bitter, as bitter as a walnut-skin. I spat. But oh, how much more terrible the weight of all that dark fruit in me. Not a fortnight in a heathen land and already I had soiled my body in several unusual ways.
The Habitation of the Blessed really is a tour de force of a historical fantasy. Valente is scrupulously faithful not only to the original Prester John legends, but to medieval theology and the allegorical nature of the "beasts" that medievals believed in. The lions and blemmyae and peacocks are as human as John, perhaps more so, yet still "beasts," as they point out to him.
“This is my wife,” said Fortunatus thickly. He nuzzled the tree with his feathery forehead. The eyes closed in warm recognition. “I hoped for a face, a mouth to speak to me and give me comfort. But sometimes the world treats us without grace. Certainly death may occur, if one is uncareful, or fate unkind. But it is easily gotten over, and so long as I am lucky enough not to crack my skull, I will live forever. So can you, if you stay here, without any recourse to your Christ. I think that more or less spoils your whole story, and in truth I am not sorry, for it had rough and ungenerous aspects.” He stretched his paws and regarded them with interest, avoiding my shocked gaze. His voice grew infinitely gentle. “John, you must see that there is no place for me in your story. At best, I would be a beast of the field, would I not? And never given a choice to obey or defy? Never presented with temptation, only part of a dominion. And so I know you think you speak the truth, but it cannot be so. I refute it with my very being. I breathe, I speak, I think, I dream. I grieve, and love. And I live forever. My mate, who was my body and self, died in a storm that ripped whole forests into dust, and I will never cease mourning her until the end of everything that is me, nor for our cub who died with her. Am I less than you, who you say stand master over me?”
My mind raced itself and got nowhere. I could not stop looking at the tree of eyes, the evidence of a life far beyond my comprehension. Now, I can admit it: I was looking for the trick, the mechanism by which the beast had fooled me. I could believe in a gryphon, but not in this tree, not in life everlasting on earth, without God.
John is kind of a schmuck, and naturally he's full of hang-ups about a place where talking sheep-heads grow on trees and women have eyes for nipples. The Pentexorans patiently listen to his proselytizing, sometimes argue with him, but mostly tolerate him. In the volumes transcribed by Hiob Von Luzern, John travels with a company of Pentexorans who take him to the Fountain of Youth, past the Gates of Alexander, and to the Tower of Babel itself. When at last he returns home, he joins their society by participating in their strange lottery known as the Abir.
Did I love this book? I really, really wanted to. But as beautiful and imaginative as it was, it requires a lot of patience and undivided attention to catch all those marvelous details Valente tosses right and left like a dog shaking off water. This is a brilliant work with more imagination in one page than most fantasy novels have from cover to cover, but it took me longer to get through it than most books twice its length, and at no point would I call it a "page-turner." Catherynne Valente's prose is like dense chocolate cheesecake; it's gorgeous and tasty but I can only sample a little at a time without feeling like I've overindulged.
So, I liked it, and I will read more of Valente's books, but I'm not going to jump into the second Prester John book, The Folded World, right away.
Verdict: Beautiful, imaginative, rich, dense, really more of a modern updating of a medieval travelogue, bestiary, and allegory than a novel. The story unfolds at a gradual pace and only arrives where we already knew it was going. It's hard for me to rate this one: Catherynne Valente is a genius and nobody can write like her, but this book was wordy exhibitionism and Medieval Studies porn, and I wish getting through it had been more a matter of eagerness than resolution. But I think my reaction is very much a YMMV thing, and if you are already a Catherynne Valente fan then I'm sure you'll like it.
Also by Catherynne M. Valente: My review of The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making