Posts Tagged ‘Catherynne M. Valente’


Escape Pod 340: Golubash (Wine-Blood-War-Story)

Golubash (Wine-Blood-War-Story)

By Catherynne M. Valente

The difficulties of transporting wine over interstellar distances are manifold. Wine is, after all, like a child. It can _bruise_. It can suffer trauma—sometimes the poor creature can recover, sometimes it must be locked up in a cellar until it learns to behave itself. Sometimes it is irredeemable. I ask that you greet the seven glasses before you tonight not as simple fermented grapes, but as the living creatures they are, well-brought up, indulged but not coddled, punished when necessary, shyly seeking your approval with clasped hands and slicked hair. After all, they have come so very far for the chance to be loved.

Welcome to the first public tasting of Domaine Zhaba. My name is Phylloxera Nanut, and it is the fruit of my family’s vines that sits before you. Please forgive our humble venue—surely we could have wished for something grander than a scorched pre-war orbital platform, but circumstances, and the constant surveillance of Chatêau Marubouzu-Debrouillard and their soldiers have driven us to extremity. Mind the loose electrical panels and pull up a reactor husk—they are inert, I assure you. Spit onto the floor—a few new stains will never be noticed. As every drop about to pass your lips is wholly, thoroughly, enthusiastically illegal, we shall not stand on ceremony. Shall we begin?

2583 Sud-Cotê-du-Golubash (New Danube)

The colonial ship _Quintessence of Dust_ first blazed across the skies of Avalokitesvara two hundred years before I was born, under the red stare of Barnard’s Star, our second solar benefactor. Her plasma sails streamed kilometers long, like sheltering wings. Simone Nanut was on that ship. She, alongside a thousand others, looked down on their new home from  that great height, the single long, unfathomably wide river that circumscribed the globe, the golden mountains prickled with cobalt alders, the deserts streaked with pink salt.

How I remember the southern coast of Golubash, I played there, and dreamed there was a girl on the invisible opposite shore, and that her family, too, made wine and cowered like us in the shadow of the Asociación.

My friends, in your university days did you not study the rolls of the first colonials, did you not memorize their weight-limited cargo, verse after verse of spinning wheels, bamboo seeds, lathes, vials of tailored bacteria, as holy writ? Then perhaps you will recall Simone Nanut and her folly, that her pitiful allotment of cargo was taken up by the clothes on her back and a tangle of ancient Maribor grapevine, its roots tenderly wrapped and watered. Mad Slovak witch they all thought her, patting those tortured, battered vines into the gritty yellow soil of the Golubash basin. Even the Hyphens were sure the poor things would fail. There were only four of them on all of Avalokitesvara, immensely tall, their watery triune faces catching the old red light of Barnard’s flares, their innumerable arms fanned out around their terribly thin torsos like peacock’s tails. Not for nothing was the planet named for a Hindu god with eleven faces and a thousand arms. The colonists called them Hyphens for their way of talking, and for the thinness of their bodies. They did not understand then what you must all know now, rolling your eyes behind your sleeves as your hostess relates ancient history, that each of the four Hyphens was a quarter of the world in a single body, that they were a mere outcropping of the vast intelligences which made up the ecology of Avalokitesvara, like one of our thumbs or a pair of lips.
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Myths of Origin by Catherynne M. Valente

Myths of OriginIt is easy to love a book when it has been cruel to you. Myths of Origin by Catherynne M. Valente is a hard book, and one that will encourage most readers to put it down. It contains four short novels, each of which will challenge the reader to make sense of its elaborate metaphors and strange perspectives. The language in this book shows a poet’s fondness for unexpected juxtapositions. Anyone who cannot read a book simply for the beauty of the writing should not pick this one up at all.

However, those who are brave enough to read the Myths will be rewarded with four extraordinary novels. The first one, The Labyrinth, is by far the least comprehensible. Most of it seems to be happening inside the protagonist’s head. She reminds me of Alice, and her Wonderland is the Labyrinth of Crete. Whether or not there’s a minotaur in the middle is still an open question at the end, I think — there is a bull of sorts, but it’s complicated. This novel is dense and wild and does not seem to have much of a point other than to prove that a novel like itself can exist. I liked the bit with the rabbit.

The second novel is Yume no Hon: The Book of Dreams. This is the one that I was most looking forward to when I picked up Myths of Origin, though I found that the next novel in the sequence did most of what I wanted this one to do. Once again, Valente finds the connections between totally unrelated things — in this case, a wild woman living in an abandoned pagoda in the mountains of Japan, and the Sphinx of Thebes. Each chapter begins with the name of a season from the Japanese calendar of the Heian period, and most don’t last more than a page. Like Labyrinth, this book is filled with powerful images. I had a sense that if I’d spent more time studying Japanese folklore or Babylonian creation myths, I might have gotten more out of Yume no Hon.

The Grass-Cutting Sword is my favorite of the four, but also the most upsetting. It tackles the story of Susano and the eight-headed maiden-eating dragon. It also speaks to the varied cruelties inflicted on women — on beautiful women, on plain women, on obedient women, on wild women, on mothers and on sisters. Valente plays with voices in The Grass-Cutting Sword. The dragon and the eight maidens speak while sharing the same body, while Susano narrates his own story and the story of his mother. This book is bloody.

Under in the Mere proposes that California is a place where questing knights from King Aurthur’s court can go to hunt their beasts or find their grails. It matches each character from Arthurian legend up with a card from the tarot and with an overarching image — Kay the robot, Galahad the shapeshifter, and so on — and plays each image out to its furthest extreme. It quotes the relevant passages from Malory in case the reader is unfamiliar, and then takes them in the most unexpected directions. It is a fine book in and of itself, though I will admit to being tired after reading the other three.

If you can treat each of these novels as a separate piece, and perhaps take breaks between them, then Myths of Origin is a fine collection. Fans of Catherynne M. Valente should read this book, not just because it is more of her beautiful prose, but also to see reflections of ideas that she returns to in her other works. Myths of Origin is beautiful. It demands patience; it speaks in riddles. I am glad that I read it, but I am also a little bit glad that it’s over.

“Deathless” by Catherynne M. Valente

Deathless cover
Deathless cover

“This is Russia and it is 1952. What else would you call hell?”

The retold fairytale is an old and well-worn road in the fantasy genre. Deathless by Catherynne M. Valente, still manages to arrive with something new. Valente hasn’t just taken “The Death of Koschei the Deathless” into modern Russia. She has also made a fairytale — a dark, and brutal, and frightening tale — out of the Russian revolution and the siege of Leningrad.

Marya Morevna is not the hero of “The Death of Koschei the Deathless.” Deathless is her story. She begins as a young girl in Saint Petersburg, watching as birds arrive, one by one, transform into men, and marry her sisters. By the time Koschei comes for her, she is a young woman in Leningrad.

Koschei is a perennial villain from Russian mythology. In Deathless he is cast as the Tsar of Life, fighting an endless war with the Tsar of Death that is always going badly. Marya steps into this mess and, right from the beginning, refuses to be what the fairytale demands that she be. She refuses to betray Koschei, her husband. She refuses to be helpless. And she swears that she will not go with Ivan when he arrives.

Because the hero of the story is Ivan — the hero of the story must always be an Ivan, who rescues the beautiful bride from Koschei’s withered hands. One of the central themes of Deathless is that everyone in the book knows how the story is supposed to end. They can choose to fight it, if they want. Marya does.

That sort of self-awareness will probably put some people off of Deathless. Like a lot of her writing, this book is aware that it is a book. Valente is not afraid to let her narrator turn and address the audience directly. I think this works in the context of a story whose roots lie in an oral tradition.

The fairytale style also helped give me some much-needed emotional distance from the worst of the brutality in Leningrad. Valente juxtaposes terrifying myths, such as the witch Baba Yaga who grinds the bones of disobedient girls in her flying mortar, with real tragedies — like people putting the bodies of their loved ones on sleds to take to the graveyard, only to die on the way, nameless and alone in the Russian winter.

The writing in Deathless is beautiful. I adore Valente’s writing style, and this book did not let me down. Readers who enjoyed her short story collection, Ventriloquism, will certainly find something to love in Deathless. They may recognize a character who first appeared in one of Valente’s short stories, and who has a minor role to play here.

Deathless is a subtle book. I was charmed by Naganya the rifle imp, and I’m sure there are many similar puns to be found elsewhere. The more the reader knows about Russia, its language, history, and mythology, the more they will get out of this book. Fans of Valente should definitely pick this one up, as should anyone who enjoys a dark fairytale well told.