My Journey with Reading Cat Valente

Over the past year, I’ve read virtually everything that Catherynne M. Valente has put out. This includes buying those out of print works because I’ve found myself morphed into a crazed fan apparently. I can easily say that she is my most-read author. And for good reason, I think. While her books do certainly have that Valente-esque quality to them (what with the prose that beautifully encapsulates the spirit of poetry, sometimes even being labeled as prose poetry — especially the early works), they are wonderfully diverse. She writes speculative fiction. And to be honest, a lot of her books are weird. But fairytales are weird. Mythology is weird. Life is weird, and we’re all just, well, weird. Recently, I’ve read the last thing on my shelf by her. A little while ago, I wrote a post on /r/Fantasy titled, Catherynne M. Valente Isn’t a Real Person, which was meant as a post to promote her work. The Reddit search function can be iffy at best, so I’ve decided to also post the content of that thread here if anyone is interested. Please find the aforementioned post copy/pasted below, along with links to all of my weird reviews of her books.


Catherynne M. Valente isn’t a real person.

She is a fairytale. Folklore. A myth. She is the monster that hides under your bed, breathing loudly to distract you from your own anxieties. She is the witch who builds a house of gingerbread for lost, lonely children.
At least, according to Seanan McGuire. [The previous was either paraphrased or inspired by her introduction in Indistinguishable from Magic.]

Now, of course there is such a person as Catherynne M. Valente. Or Cat Valente, if you like. So who is she? Well, she started out as a poet. She had a couple of collections: Music of a Proto-Suicide and The Descent of Inanna. Then she wrote a novel in about 30 days called The Labyrinth. Then she wrote a few more. And some short stories and essays and more poetry along the way. And still more novels and novellas. The work that earned her recognition at first, along with multiple awards and nominations, was her duology, The Orphan’s Tales, which took her up to 6 years to write. Arguably, her breakthrough in the mainstream came with 2009’s crowdfunded novel, The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making. I mean, come on, with a title like that, you know the book is something special.

 

Fun facts:

  • She is a New Who girl, and the 9th Doctor is her favorite.
  • By the time you finish reading this post, she has probably at least finished a short story. [though I can’t prove it]
  • Much of what she writes could be considered mythpunk, a term she coined when talking about her novels, especially The Orphan’s Tales.
  • She has never been to Venus. [though again, I can’t prove it.]
  • She used to work as a fortune teller.
  • If you’ve asked yourself, “Has she ever written something like -x-?”, the answer is probably yes. Arthurian legend. Eastern-inspired. Russian-inspired. Desert-inspired. Dragons. Loneliness. Friendship. Seas. Calm seas. Rough seas. Forgetful seas. Zzzs. Sex. Children’s. Etc. etc.

 

Common themes/motifs:

  • Food/Eating
    • In nearly every single work, the idea of food/eating plays an important role. In Fairyland, eating fairy food means you must come back. In The Labyrinth, you are what you eat; if you eat power, you are power. And then there’s all the apples from fairytales. The food motif serves as both a normalizer and a way to show the otherness in Deathless.
  • Saying “yes.”
    • In an essay she wrote, Valente described one point of Fairyland as being September saying “yes.” Yes to adventure. Yes to the Green Wind. Yes. I would argue this theme occurs in other books. Yes to telling this strange boy stories of stories within stories of stories. Yes to sex with this person with the strange tattoo if it means arriving in a wonderfully surreal town. Yes to the bird who can’t die (though that didn’t exactly work out, but she still chose to go). Yes.
  • Portals
    • A large portion of her work has portals to another world. In Palimpsest, the train is sex with someone who has visited the city of Palimpsest already. In Fairyland, the Green Wind comes and asks September if she’d like to go. Radiance literally goes to other worlds, other planets in the solar system — as well as the world of film and interviews and radio shows and advertisements, etc.
  • Japan
    • She lived there for about 2-3 years. It is, according to her, something that seeps into most of her work whether in the background or foreground.

 

A list of her work, along with a one-sentence summary. The links go to my review(-ish) threads. (Not in publication order)

  • The Descent of Innana
  • Music of a Proto-Suicide
    • These two are Out of Print; though the poems themselves, I think can be found in her later poetry collections.
  • Oracles: A Pilgrimage
    • Poetry: What exactly do fortune tellers and oracles do when they aren’t on the clock?
  • Apocrypha [link is the same as Oracles]
    • Poetry: Fantasy poetry can beat up SF poetry any day.
  • Myths of Origin
    • The Labyrinth: A nameless girl wanders endlessly throughout a labyrinth.
    • Yume No Han: The Book of Dreams: A lonely woman ascends a tower in Japan in a dream.
    • The Grass-Cutting Sword: A Japanese god tries to save a girl from a dragon, but the girl doesn’t exactly want saving.
    • Under in the Mere: It’s time to hear the stories of the Arthurian characters we don’t get to hear much of.
  • The Orphan’s Tales
    • Duology: A lonely girl full of ink tells a boy stories that involve other stories that involve other stories that….
    • In the Night Garden
    • In the Cities of Coin and Spice
  • Palimpsest
    • Have sex and see the most effing brilliant city ever.
  • Deathless
    • A girl marries a bird who can’t die, but things aren’t looking so hot in Russia.
  • Speak Easy
    • Let’s just say this hotel is a nesting ground of rip, roaring 20’s fun.
  • A Dirge for Prester John
    • Duology (so far…?): Some monks find records of Prester John who stumbled into an Edenic like world, but what he finds changes them forever.
    • The Habitation of the Blessed
    • The Folded World
  • Radiance
    • A young film star/director has gone missing, and she could be on any one of the 9 planets; don’t forget to drink your callowhale milk!
  • Fairyland
    • 5 books: A girl says “yes” to the Green Wind and has many adventures in, under, above, and around Fairyland.
    • The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making
    • The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There
    • The Girl Who Soared Over Fairyland and Cut the Moon in Two
    • The Boy Who Lost Fairyland
    • The Girl Who Raced Fairyland All the Way Home
  • The Glass Town Game
    • The Brontë children (yes, those ones; all 4) discover that their Glass Town is very real.
  • Various collections (though by no means any less amazing)
    • The Refrigerator Monologues: Dead “refrigerator” girls tell their side of the story.
    • The Bread We Eat in Dreams: Not every dark thing in a fairytale is necessarily evil.
    • Six-Gun Snow White: Snow White takes a Western turn, and she means business.
    • The Melancholy of Mechagirl: Japan is a fairytale [paraphrase from Valente herself].
    • This is My Letter to the World: The Omikuji Project: Cycle 1: You don’t really know fairytales until you’ve read these.
    • Ventriloquism: Out of Print: Various short stories meet each other for the first time.
  • A Guide to Folktales in Fragile Dialects
    • Poetry: A collection of folktale-inspired poems comes together to create a living body of work.
  • Indistinguishable from Magic
    • Nonfiction: Essays on a variety of topics are collected togethe
  • The Ice Puzzle
    • Out of Print. Unsure. Something about the Snow Queen if I’m not mistaken?
  • Smoky and the Feast of Mabon (Link is the same as The Glass Town Game above.)
    • Children’s picture book: A young girl named Smoky gets lost in the woods and learns about the feast of Mabon.

So WHERE THE HECK DO I START?!

  • If you’re OK with experimental:
    • The Orphan’s Tales (In the Night Garden is the first book.) [This is my personal favorite series of hers.]
  • If you prefer Science Fiction:
    • Radiance
  • If you want something reminiscent of childhood but still fresh:
    • Fairyland [This is where I started.]
  • If you want a taste of weird but not too much:
    • The Glass Town Game [if you want a Middlegrade book]
    • Deathless [if you want an adult book]
  • If you want a taste of what she’s capable of:
    • The Bread We Eat in Dreams [This is a fantastic short story collection that you can get as an eBook.]

This is not to say that it is impossible to start with her other books/collections. Start wherever you like. These are just my personal opinions on where to start.

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