In the Night Garden: Delicious and clever (but not for Kevin)

The Orphan’s Tales: In the Night Garden by Catherynne ValenteThe Orphan’s Tales: In the Night Garden by Catherynne Valente

In the Night Garden is the first in a two-book (maybe more?) series and if book one is any guide, this is as delicious and clever a tale-telling as one is likely to run into for some time. With an Arabian Nights feel and structure, we’re introduced to one engrossing story after another as the demon-girl of the garden (that’s the Sultan’s garden of course) spins them out to the enraptured young prince who disobeys orders and decorum to listen. But that’s far too simple a description, for the tales that emanate from the girl’s mouth come themselves from the mouths of the characters in each succeeding story, one after the other, as the main character from story A meets another character who regales him/her with their story (Story B), including the story he/she/it heard from someone else (Story C), including the story they heard … and on it goes, so that the stories open up like Russian dolls, nesting one inside the other. But even that is too simple a description, for some of the same characters parade across these successive stories, the same myths, the same lands — some in major roles, some in bit parts — so that while each single story unfolds, so too does a larger tale, a larger sense of beauty and mystery and horror and bravery and all the things one hopes for in a fairy tale or myth. And all the while we cycle back to the girl and the prince as their own story continues in real time.

This is a rich, lush, full work that simply blossoms before your eyes like some time-lapse video of a growing flower.

There is more creativity here than I’ve seen in a long time. Her characters could easily have all morphed into one single blob of fairy-tale types, but each stands out individually and sharply. The stories too could have blurred one into the other in cliché fairy tale fashion, but each has their own pace, their own tone, their own vivid setting, their own startling imagery, with the one exception being that the prose style itself tends to similarity in all of them.

Some may find it overly lush or ornate, but while it would be easy to find such an example or two, the problem, such as it is, is more than outweighed by the sheer beauty of the prose, whether Valente is describing a human character, a gryphon, a barnacle-encrusted pirate ship, or a fabled city of many towers.

I can’t recommend the book highly enough and would also recommend, due to the interlocking nature of the stories, that one reads it relatively quickly; otherwise you may miss those points of connection, forgetting characters’ names or relationships, etc. As well, I’d recommend not waiting too long to pick up book two, for the same reason plus because In the Night Garden ends quite abruptly and, well, you just won’t want it to.

Highly recommended — something I’d consider a must-read.

~Bill Capossere

The Orphan’s Tales: In the Night Garden by Catherynne ValenteHow do you even begin to describe this book? I was familiar with Catherynne Valente through reading her charming The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland series, all of which are targeted at a much younger audience than this. Yet even with those books, there was a certain amount of darkness underlying the whimsical elements, just as there are hefty themes and frightening ideas in the likes of Lewis Carroll‘s Alice in Wonderland and J.M. Barrie‘s Peter Pan.

There currently seem to be a growing number of books in the “adult fairy tale” genre, and In the Night Garden certainly falls into that category. By now it’s common knowledge that the oldest of fairy tales weren’t necessarily just for children. The Brothers Grimm had to significantly sanitize many of the shocking elements of the tales they compiled (exorcising all the incest, bloodshed, mutilation and rape, of which there was plenty) a trend that continued when Walt Disney began to cater to family audiences, turning to fairy tales for inspiration and further stripping them of anything regarded as even remotely unsavoury.

So by now “fairy tales” are considered the sole province of children, though a few glimpses of what they used to be sometimes manage to slip through in various retellings (even Disney knows how to crank up the scary imagery). And with the growing popularity of “adult fairy tales,” it’s apparent that there’s a market for readers who want to explore the key aspects of fairy tales (the symbolism, the motifs, the archetypes, the themes) in their original form — filled with overt death, sex, violence, fanaticism and other subjects that are generally considered unsuitable for young ears.

Whether coddling our children is a good thing (I know plenty that seem to enjoy Coraline, for example) or what exactly encompasses a fairy tale anyway are debates for another time; suffice to say that Catherynne Valente‘s In the Night Garden (the first of a duology) is geared toward older readers who enjoy intense imagery, poetic-prose, and complex storytelling.

Heavily based and inspired by The Arabian Nights, the book’s most notable feature is its non-linear storytelling. The framing device involves the introduction of a young girl with a strange birthmark across her eyes, who lives by herself in the expansive grounds of a Sultan’s palace. Shunned by the nobility and servants alike, one of the Sultan’s many children (a boy) eventually finds and befriends her, learning the reason for her facial markings. They are tattoos that contain hidden stories, and only once they are told out loud might the girl be free of them.

And so she begins her narrative, delving into a myriad of tales involving shape-shifting witches, fox-headed pirates, ill-tempered mermaids, transformed polar bears, mysterious snake-gods and more — so much more. As with Arabian Nights, the thread of narrative delves in and out of various stories, much like a set of Russian nesting dolls or ever-decreasing concentric circles. One character will share their backstory, which involves yet another character with their own story to share, the overarching story sometimes sinking five or so stories deep.

This can get a bit frustrating at times if you’re caught up in a particular story, only for it to come to an abrupt halt in order for someone else to take over the flow of the narrative (usually at a complete tangent from whatever else was going on at the time) but the beauty of Valente‘s work is that everything comes increasingly more interconnected as the story goes on. Certain characters pop up in various sub-stories, and figures that have been wandering about in disguise or under an assumed identity eventually reveal themselves and their relationships to other narratives. It’s like watching a dazzling tapestry being pulled together over the course of several hours, and I can safely say it’s like nothing I’ve ever read before.

With inspiration drawn from ancient folklore and myths from around the world, there’s really no shortage of imaginative wonders on display: seers with mouths in their bellies, moon-creatures that possess dead bodies, griffins that fight a race of one-eyed warriors, stars whose light does strange things to those who manage to chance upon them — this is just scratching the surface of what Valente has to offer. Once you get going, there seems to be no end to the imaginative force that she wields, and all of it is told in such dense poetic-prose. You almost get drunk on it, and the only other fantasy writers I could possibly compare her to would be Patricia McKillip and (to a lesser extent) Laini Taylor. And to be honest, I think Valente exceeds them both.

There is a feminist slant in the sense that it involves dozens of female characters with agency and complexity, and plenty of diversity, which is only fitting when so much of the story seems takes place in an Eastern-inspired world. Aptly enough, there are endless subversions and twists on the usual fantasy tropes: of all the damsels, wizards, witches, kings, beggars and other familiar fairy-tale characters, I can guarantee you that their stories won’t play out the way you expected. Michael Kaluta provides striking illustrations that help give some of the wonders that Valente conjures a sense of realism.

One thing is certain: this book isn’t for everyone, and it deserves significant time and attention. You definitely don’t want to treat this as a bit of light reading, for the intricacy of the plotting and the prose deserves to be savoured. Like all the best books that the adult fairy tale genre has to offer, In the Night Garden feels fresh and yet familiar, complex yet simplistic, entertaining yet profound. Needless to say, I’ll be tracking down its other half: In the Cities of Coin and Spice.

~Rebecca Fisher

The Orphan’s Tales: In the Night Garden by Catherynne ValenteI was in awe of the way she nested these stories into one another… not unlike what she does in Palimpsest. As someone who can barely write a story where things progress forward in a chronologically linear fashion, I can only gaze at Valente’s works in a state of complete envy.

~Marion Deeds

Catherynne M. Valente‘s In the Night Garden, the first in a duology, has been sitting on my to-read shelf for more than two years, and I’ve had it highly recommended to me by numerous friends and librarians, not to mention my colleagues here, Bill, Kat, Alix, and Rebecca. For the most part, I agree with their reviews, especially Alix’s piece detailing the themes and philosophical consequences of the work. I can definitely see the literary merit of the work: it’s a beautifully written masterpiece full of creative and non-traditional storylines, made all the more powerful by Valente’s prose. However, the truth is that I was able only to get through the first half of In the Night Garden. I was very surprised at this given the number of extremely positive reviews and recommendations I’ve read and been given; to my mind, it’s a problem with this particular novel and not with Valente’s writing.

One of my main concerns is with the complexity of the work. Valente has written her novel in an Arabian Nights-esque style: there’s a framework story with many stories nested within it, but part of what distinguishes In the Night Garden’s structure is the many layers of stories that are told. At one point, I tallied more than six stories-within-stories (seven if you include the framework story), all being related simultaneously. While all the stories do eventually come together, it was extremely frustrating to sort through and to keep track of the characters, which made it difficult to keep reading. Every story gets interrupted with an oftentimes seemingly unrelated backstory; although once I finished the first half of the book it became evident that each layer was somehow related to each of the other layers, this wasn’t evident as I was reading; each and every time I would begin to become invested in a particular character or storyline, Valente interjects another story into the novel, and the previous storyline did not continue until the intruding narrative and all the narratives within that narrative were concluded. Rebecca described this in the seventh paragraph in her review. I suspect that the two books together, In the Night Garden and In the Cities of Coin and Spice, will have some similar effect in relating all the storylines, but I simply couldn’t bring myself to keep reading. Kat’s suggestion that you take notes seems to me to be rather valid, and might have helped significantly to alleviate my misery; if you do decide to tackle this novel, I’d also suggest that you try this out.

Some other contributing factors to my continued exasperation with In the Night Garden were the pacing and character development. While there certainly is some action taking place within the novel, much of it is disjointed and some parts of In the Night Garden felt very slow. Part of the problem is, I think, that each time a new subplot was introduced, Valente would have to present a host of new characters. As a result, I was upset that in addition to not being able to keep the storylines straight, I felt that whenever a turning point or similar moment occurred, the action would be disrupted by another story that sometimes began slowly. Moreover, I had similar thoughts about the character development — it didn’t feel as gradual or as seamless as I felt it could have, but part of that may also have been Valente’s fairy tale style. In combination, these factors made me highly disinclined to continue In the Night Garden.

I say this, however, knowing that in some ways, Valente’s In the Night Garden is both a literary experiment and a literary masterpiece. Thus, if you enjoy fairy tales or more novel works, I would recommend In the Night Garden, although perhaps not to the extent that Bill does. Additionally, it might be worth reading through the book quickly, as both Kat and Bill suggest, so as to minimize the confusion such a large cast of characters might bring. However, if you think you may find yourself succumbing to the pains I described above, perhaps it may be better to stay away. I might come back to In the Night Garden in the future and make an attempt at finishing the series; but in the meantime, this work in particular doesn’t push me away from Valente as a whole, so I might take a look at some of her other novels. One thing, though is certain: In the Night Garden, masterwork though it might be, is definitely not for everyone.

~Kevin Wei

Publication Date: October 31, 2006. A Book of Wonders for Grown-Up Readers. Every once in a great while a book comes along that reminds us of the magic spell that stories can cast over us–to dazzle, entertain, and enlighten. Welcome to the Arabian Nights for our time–a lush and fantastical epic guaranteed to spirit you away from the very first page…. Secreted away in a garden, a lonely girl spins stories to warm a curious prince: peculiar feats and unspeakable fates that loop through each other and back again to meet in the tapestry of her voice. Inked on her eyelids, each twisting, tattooed tale is a piece in the puzzle of the girl’s own hidden history. And what tales she tells! Tales of shape-shifting witches and wild horsewomen, heron kings and beast princesses, snake gods, dog monks, and living stars–each story more strange and fantastic than the one that came before. From ill-tempered “mermaid” to fastidious Beast, nothing is ever quite what it seems in these ever-shifting tales–even, and especially, their teller. Adorned with illustrations by the legendary Michael Kaluta, Valente’s enchanting lyrical fantasy offers a breathtaking reinvention of the untold myths and dark fairy tales that shape our dreams. And just when you think you’ve come to the end, you realize the adventure has only begun….

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BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is lately spending much of his time trying to finish a book-length collection of essays and a full-length play. His prior work has appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other journals and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of several Best American Essay anthologies. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, co-writing the Malazan Empire re-read at, or working as an English adjunct, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course, the ultimate frisbee field, or trying to keep up with his wife's flute and his son's trumpet on the clarinet he just picked up this month.

View all posts by Bill Capossere


  1. Damn, after reading this review, I kind of want to go out and get myself a copy of this book RIGHT NOW! Your description makes it sound like it’ll scratch an itch that’s been left unsatisfied for a long time now…

  2. I loved this book, too!

  3. I read this after I read her two Prester John books (and I wish she would finish that cycle!) I loved how the stories opened up into one another, and I think her use of language is brilliant. I like your idea that you can get drunk on her prose.

  4. Without giving anything away (or too much away) I also liked her “take” on the step-mother trope.

  5. Kevin, thank you for reminding me that I must get In the Cities of Coin and Spice! And this is probably the most positive DNF review the site’s ever posted.

  6. Kevin, I loved this book, but yet I agree with everything you said. I think you’ve had a perfectly valid response to the novel, and it’s particularly mature of you (he’s still in high school, folks!) to realize that just because you don’t like it doesn’t mean it’s not a great novel.

  7. And that’s how to do a negative review! Sorry you didn’t respond well to one of my favorites, but I can easily see where you’re coming from in all your points. And your closing line is certainly true.

  8. Kat, what if we had it all backward? What if we’re the MOST mature in high school and we get more IMmature with time? O.o mind=blown

  9. Kevin, I think you need to start teaching classes on how to write a proper DNF review. Great job!

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