Review: The Habitation of the Blessed
Let’s get this out of the way right at the beginning. Catherynne M. Valente is made of magic. She is composed entirely of some strange magical awesome that I would love to have just a fraction of. Are we clear on that? Good. Let’s move on.
This particular brand of awesome is THE HABITATION OF THE BLESSED, Volume One of A Dirge for Prester John. The work is based loosely on the legends of Prester John–stories told between the 12th and 17th centuries in Europe. These legends told of a Christian King ruling a lost land full of countless wonders. From this Catherynne M. Valente weaves her own unique narrative to bring those legends and that man to life.
The story is told from the PoV of Brother Hiob, a missionary in search of John’s fabled kingdom. What he finds is a tree that bears fruit in the shape of books—readable, fascinating books that wither away and spoil like fruit. He is allowed only three books and spends the whole of the novel reading them (one hour at a time so as not to let one sit and spoil and be lost forever). The three books are John’s own tale of his adventures, the tale of John’s blemmye wife (a blemmye being a humanoid creature that carries their face on their chest) and the stories of Imtithal, nanny to the royal family.
If that sounds confusing, don’t worry too hard. It IS confusing. It’s also absolutely wonderful. You are taken on a strange journey through this magical land just as Brother Hiob is. The stories unfold and slowly, you, the reader, build up this world with its weird and strange inhabitants. The stories weave in and out of each other like a tapestry, often character from one story commingling with the others. Slowly, through the telling of all three stories a greater tale emerges. I don’t want to give it away, I’ll let you read it for yourself.
The strong points for this book come in the imagination and beautiful prose of the book. This in not the type of whiz-bang magic that feels cheap and flashy. This is real magic here. It is strange, dark, gritty and completely mesmerizing. On top of that Valente’s language is second to none. I know from Valente’s blog that she doesn’t necessarily like it when her prose is compared to poetry, as if she’s pulling a fast one on you (Ha, you thought you were going to read a novel and I got you to read poetry!) The only thing is, her writing IS so beautiful and poetic that it makes most other books look like crap. If other books are a pencil drawing then Valente’s work is a masterpiece of oils, an explosion of color. Valente is an artist and her words are her medium. There is definitely a story there to follow with fun and interesting characters, but often times I would have to sit back and reread a sentence (and possible reread it again) because it was so beautiful.
However, this is not a book that proceeds at a breakneck pace. The book actually feels very even throughout, but that pacing isn’t like what you’d expect from, say, a Sword & Sorcery tale. It doesn’t build up to some large climax at the end. The good news is that it starts off beautiful and ends the same way. The tale is told like a real life, there are ups and downs, but it’s not resolved neatly in a nice package at the end. There are writers who write all about the ending, the destination at the end. Valente writes about the journey and the moments in between. To those expecting a strong easily identifiable story arch, you won’t find it here—remember, this is just Volume One. To be honest I’m still not sure where the overall story is going. It follows some fun characters, talks about a fascinating world, but I really have no clue what’s going to happen next or what the end goal will be.
And you know what, I don’t care. All I know is that I’ll be there for every step of the journey.
This book is magically delicious. I pick up Valente’s work as soon as it comes out and so should you. This is something special. Let’s all go buy her books so she can keep writing more.
Age Recommendation: 16+ for a bit of sexual reference
Language: A bit here and there, but not much.
Violence: Not much to speak of.
Sex: A bit. One of the main characters, a female, has eyes on her breasts and it’s mentioned quite a bit. A few other small scenes as well.
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