The Habitation of the Blessed, being the first volume of A Dirge for Prester John, is the newest addition to the long and honorable tradition of fan fiction dedicated to a 12th-century forgery. The original letter described a kingdom in the generically exotic and conveniently distant “east,” where a Christian priest ruled a nation of improbable creatures, and oh-by-the-way also the Fountain of Youth. The letter went viral, spawning argument, analysis, fan fiction, and ill-fated military expeditions whose commanders though Prester John would show up with his griffins and his lions to help with the Crusades. It stayed popular for the next five hundred years, until Europeans got far enough east to realize that Prester John had never existed.
More information about the historical Letter of Prester John can be found at the handy Prester John website.
Catherynne Valente’s book takes on the myth from a science fiction point of view, asking the practical questions of — How did a random Christian guy end up king of all these incredible people? How does a society made of so many radically different people, from the talking griffons to the headless Blemmyes, actually work? And what is life like for people who drink from the Fountain of Youth?
The world she builds on this foundation is like nothing I have seen before. If I had to, I suppose I could compare it to the way I remember Narnia, before someone pointed out all the Christian symbolism and I grew old enough to wonder where the tea and sugar came from. Catherynne Valente does a remarkable thing in a book with one foot in a medieval bestiary: Not one of her characters is a symbol. Each of them, even the ones we only meet briefly, feels as real as any of the people I see every day. At one point our heroes meet a man who is digging endless tunnels through the mixture of air and sea that has smothered his city. He has the head of a goat, and his circumstances are strange even by local standards, but in a crisis he puts his head down and gets to work, trusting everyone else to do the same.
The superbly-drawn characters make the framing narrative and structure easy to follow. The Habitation of the Blessed has at least four major narrative tracks — the story of Hagia, fierce and beautiful, who forces Prester John to see her as a person and not just as an upsetting body, the story of Imtithal and the queen’s children, Prester John’s own story, and the story of the monks who followed him.
Prester John himself has the potential to be just another Christian man who arrives in a foreign country, fails to understand or even acknowledge the beliefs of the locals, and decides that God wants him to be in charge (why they never seem to use the premises that 1-their God is supposed to be omnipotent and 2-the locals are getting along fine to deduce that 3-God is ok with the status quo… is a topic for another time.) Like the rest of the characters, though, he isn’t a just symbol or a message, and it’s hard not to feel for him as he tries to make sense of the bizarre world in which he finds himself, as the people he meets challenge and overturn his most deeply held beliefs, just by existing.
I didn’t want to put The Habitation of the Blessed down and read something else, but I ran out of pages. It comes to a conclusion of sorts, though there is clearly more story left to tell. My only consolation is the promise of a sequel.