Fantastic Reviews - Fantasy Book Review
cover of The Habitation of the Blessed The Habitation of the Blessed by Catherynne M. Valente

Night Shade trade paperback - 269 pages
Copyright 2010
Cover art by Rebecca Guay

Book reviewed March 2011

Rating: 7/10  (Recommended)

Review by Aaron Hughes

          In a sense, Catherynne Valente's work doesn't much need reviewing.  No one has to tell you it's terrific - just open it up and weird and amazing things will leap off the page at you.  The Habitation of the Blessed is beautifully written from the opening lines:

I am a very bad historian.  But I am a very good miserable old man.  I sit at the end of the world, close enough to see my shriveled old legs hang over the bony ridge of it.  I came so far for gold and light and a story the size of the sky.  But I have managed to gather for myself only a basket of ash and a kind of empty sorrow, that the world is not how I wished it to be.

If that passage grabs you the way it did me, then you need to read The Habitation of the Blessed.  Because there is a great deal more like that in store for you:

When a book lies unopened it might contain anything in the world, anything imaginable.  It therefore, in that pregnant moment before opening, contains everything.  Every possibility, both perfect and putrid.  Surely such mysteries are the most enticing things You grant us in this mortal mere - the fruit in the garden, too, was like this.  Unknown, and therefore infinite.  Eve and her mate swallowed eternity, every possible thing, and made the world between them.

Catherynne Valente's use of language is consistently exquisite.  I believe this is the most quotable book I have ever read.  The dialogue is striking:

         "God is love," I said weakly, and the moon flickered through black branches.  I believed then that it was so.
         "When you say that, and I say that," said Qaspiel, "I do not think we mean the same thing.  You mean it only as a metaphor."

You cannot sit down and breeze through a Catherynne Valente book.  You must read it carefully, and ponder what it says, because the book is striving to change the way you see things.  And if Valente's work succeeds in changing you, you may not realize it until much later:

No one can ever know when the world changes.  It just happens - you cannot feel it shift, you are only suddenly unbalanced, tumbling headlong toward something, something new.

The Habitation of the Blessed is loosely based on the medieval legend of Prester John, a Christian king once thought to rule a strange land somewhere in the Orient.  Valente joins a diverse group of modern authors who have written of Prester John, including Robert Silverberg and Umberto Eco - he has even appeared in Marvel comics.

In Valente's version, Prester John was a priest traveling the East in search of the remains of St. Thomas.  He found his way to a magical land populated by griffins and headless blemmyes, huge-eared panotii and many other magical creatures, a land where the fountain of youth exists and anything planted in the ground will eventually regrow on the spot from the limbs of a new tree.  There a group of strange natives joins John on a pilgrimage to St. Thomas' resting place.

John's story comes to us second-hand.  The frame story is of Brother Hiob of Luzerne, a Seventeenth Century missionary who stumbles into the same magical land.  He finds a book tree, from which he plucks three volumes, one narrated by Prester John, one telling John's story from the point of view of a female blemmye named Hagia, and one a weird book of children's tales called "The Scarlet Nursery," narrated by Imtithal, a panoti nursemaid.  Hiob feverishly tries to read and copy these book-fruits before they rot away in his hands.

The main purpose of all these narratives is to show us around this strange world, a land apparently untainted by original sin - Valente makes repeated allusions to the Garden of Eden and the Tree of Knowledge - and thus incomprehensible to either John or Hiob.  Some of the cultural differences result from the existence of an accessible fountain of youth.  For instance, to prevent stagnation, every 300 years there is an "Abir," a ceremony that assigns a new identity to everyone in the land.

The stories of Imtithal in "The Scarlet Nursery" focus on the children in her charge, to whom she is a wonderful "Butterfly," and whom she loves with open eyes:

Children, you must understand, are monsters.  They are ravenous, ravening, they lope over the countryside with slavering mouths, seeking love to devour.  Even when they find it, even if they roll about in it and gorge themselves, still it will never be enough.  Their hunger for it is greater than any heart to satisfy.  You mustn't think poorly of them for it - we are all monsters that way, it is only that when we are grown, we learn more subtle methods to snatch it up.

Hagia's narrative thrills in the new experiences occasioned by John's arrival:

All of us felt it, except perhaps John, little more than forty and still a baby.  Who knew if he felt anything, if he had the capacity to sense the friction of a story approaching, one of our very own, one we might be able to tell and re-tell and exaggerate and demure for at least a century.  Oh, you don't want to hear that old thing again!  Well, if you insist.

As a blemmye Hagia necessarily must go about topless, since her face is in her chest, and John is conflicted from the start, finding her both beautiful and monstrous:

         Did I want her then, already?  No, of course not.  I was still a priest.  I was a good man.
         I always wanted her.  I was a fool.

At first, Hagia also holds John in contempt, but eventually they find love together, albeit not a simple romance:

Love is hungry and severe.  Love is not unselfish or bashful or servile or gentle.  Love demands everything.  Love is not serene, and it keeps no records.  Love sometimes gives up, loses faith, even hope, and it cannot endure everything.  Love, sometimes, ends.  But its memory lasts forever, and forever it may come again.

I admire the writing in this novel very much.  Even so, I must admit I did not enjoy the book quite so much as I wanted to.  To my tastes, The Habitation of the Blessed lacks the narrative drive of Valente's very best novels, such as The Orphan’s Tales and Palimpsest.  Perhaps that partly reflects that this is only the first of a three-volume series, although it is not apparent by the end of The Habitation of the Blessed where the next two books are headed.

Catherynne Valente's works commonly employ a stories-within-stories framework, and she is a master of the form, with each layer of the story telling a strong stand-alone tale, but also complementing and strengthening the other layers.  But in The Habitation of the Blessed, some of the layers do not have a plot that stands alone well, nor do they contribute much to our appreciation of the other layers.  To begin with, Brother Hiob is a pure plot device to introduce the other stories.  He is not fleshed out as a character - mostly he is just a second incarnation of John, with less personality.  He never much does anything but read the books he finds and express consternation.  Similarly, there is no independent plot to Imtithal's "Scarlet Nursery" passages, and those sections seem tangential at best to the main story line, even though Valente draws certain connections by the end.

The primary story of John and Hagia also lacks much external conflict.  The characters go on a meandering quest, but with little at stake for any of them except John.  John eventually arrives at a revelation with profound impact on him, but not on me or I suspect most of Valente's readers.

All of which is a long-winded way of saying The Habitation of the Blessed is relatively thin on plot.  Of course, novelists are not required by law to drape their narratives over a standard plot framework - Whodunit?  Blow that up!  Where's my McGuffin?  - but it can be difficult to keep readers engaged without that.  The Habitation of the Blessed is filled with great lines and impressive passages, but overall I was never so absorbed in the story as I have been with other Valente works.  I hate to finish this review on that note, but what can you do?:

Sometimes you're in a story, and also telling it, and it is the worst thing, because you can't change the ending, you can only live through it.

What do you think? Comments are welcome!
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Copyright 2011 Aaron Hughes

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Links to other Catherynne M. Valente reviews, articles, and websites:
Catherynne M. Valente: author's website
Catherynne M. Valente - Wikipedia
Whatever: The Big Idea: Catherynne M. Valente
Escape Pod: Review: The Habitation of the Blessed by Catherynne Valente
Fantasy Cafe: Review of The Habitation of the Blessed by Catherynne M. Valente
Locus Online : Faren Miller reviews Catherynne M. Valente
Prester John Online: promotional site from Night Shade Books & Valente

For information on more science fiction and fantasy books:
Denver Science Fiction and Fantasy Book Club

This page was last updated - 14 March 2011