Second review in a row where I adore an author but have more reservations about this particular book. In this case, it's not that I didn't think it lived up to previous books. That would be hard, since this is some of the first stuff Catherynne Valente wrote. It's more that, if I hadn't already known what a terrific writer she is, I might not have stuck this one out.
I am glad I did. I think she only gets better from here, but in these early short novels, there's a real hint of the greatness to come. This is a collection of four short novels, collected together.
If this had been an author I didn't know, I think that first story, about the labyrinth and the seeker and the minotaur, would have defeated me. The language is beautiful, and I kept having the feeling that there was something there, lurking behind the words (a wonderful metaphor for this story), but I never got to look at it straight-on. It was always veiled, and the writing, although beautiful and poetic, was also opaque.
But I stuck it out, because I love Valente's work. (I was so delighted when my husband finished Deathless recently, and loved it as much as I do.) And found there was much to like here. It's rougher than her later work, more uncontrolled and messy, but you can see the seeds of the books that come after, and that's fascinating. I would not start here. But if you had read a number of her books, and loved them, then this is not a bad place to come to later on, to see her evolution as a writer.
If the first story is a poem in prose, dense and opaque, the three others are more accessible, although sometimes still a bit rough. But rough in a way that hints at depths and shimmerings yet to come. The second story, "Yume No Hon: The Book of Dreams" is set in Japan (or is it?) about an old woman on the mountain who dreams of other women, other mythical lives, and is not sure which is the dreaming. She is the Sphinx, Isis, herself, and others. It's a book about solitude and connection.
The third is "The Grass-Cutting Sword," also a riff on Japanese mythology, about an eight-headed serpent and the eight young women it devours, although devouring might not be the right word, and the villain not who you would expect. It also strikes me as being about a search for wholeness in other people, about projection and acceptance. And love, twisted, and untwisted.
The last is a series of vignettes about the Knights of the Round Table, set in California. This was perhaps my favourite, probably because Arthurian myth has long been one of my particular interests. In all the midst of the retellings of Arthurian legends of late, the Knights have gotten short shrift, and I was quite delighted by what stories Valente gave to them here. They are stories of masculinity, the difficulties therein, of quests and knights, of compulsions and rages.
This is not an easy book, not an easy set of short novels. But I am glad I stuck it out. I think I will come back to it - the first story in particular whispers to me that there is more to be discovered on future readings. We will see.