I'm going to start with a digression. I love John Sayles movies. Adore them. And once you've seen them all, you can see a progression in his technique of interlocking stories about communities instead of individuals. Lone Star is the epitome of this, effortlessly moving back and forth in space and time to create one of the masterful pieces of storytelling I've ever seen in my entire life.
But of course, he couldn't start there. There are earlier movies, where you can see it in its formative stages, where it's not quite so assured, where he almost loses that strong line of storytelling that makes Lone Star hang together. City of Hope is a great example of this. It's good, but there are moments when the stories almost fly apart, when he almost falls off the tightrope he's walking across. But he needed those movies, I'd guess, to figure out how to do this.
That's kind of the way I feel about In the Night Garden. I have loved or really enjoyed all of Valente's books that I've read. I'm a big fan. And while I quite enjoyed In the Night Garden quite a lot, there were moments when it feels like she was almost losing those strands of story, that they weren't being woven together quite enough and started to feel a bit snarled instead of simply messy.
Which is too bad, because this is exactly the sort of book I would expect to love. And while the way the storytelling didn't quite hold together didn't ruin the experience, it is a sign, I think, of a technique in its beginning stages, which I think I see come to fuller fruition in later books.
It's all about fairy tales. It's about storytelling. It's, at times, a gloriously messy tapestry of interlocking and nested stories, weaving back and forth between them. And if at times, the threads get tangled and don't hold together, if I can't keep all these stories in my mind and lose connections, well, that's not the end of the world. But it feels like she's so close to a masterpiece and comes away with merely a really enjoyable book.
In the Night Garden begins with a bit of an Arabian Nights tinge to it - a young prince in a castle sneaks out every night to the garden to hear the stories of a young girl who others call a demon. Her stories are not discrete units - each dovetails into the next, and each of her narrators runs into other storytellers in turn. Stories are nested, come partway out, dive back, and later stories dovetail in interesting ways.
A necromancer is a villain of many of the early stories, and the myths of how the stars came to be, and how they might still be around, and what grace could be given by or stolen from them. A city with competing religions that existed in harmony faced down an invading army, and a woman went looking for the saint she was named after. Bears turned to men, girls to birds, and nothing was ever quite what it seemed.
Each individual story is really good. There are just too many to keep straight, and times when she tried to draw them together and it worked and times when I couldn't remember what she was referring to and it fell a little flat. But it's a valiant effort, and a thoroughly enjoyable book, if you can let go of needing to fit it all together.