It was snowing in the Garden.
This was not unheard of--surely in the books of the Sultan there was a woodcut of ladies in fur collars cavorting in the snow, little bell-strung dogs leaping at their feet. Some few flakes had even fallen when the girl was young, but certainly not this, not a blizzard which sunk men into ice to their knees. Frost had not gilded the leaves of the lemon trees in so long that even the oldest of noblewomen doddering in her bed could only dimly recall what color her dog might have been, and the sound of his jangling bells. Yet the lake had frozen into a reed-rimmed mirror, and the pine needles were sheathed in ice, glittering cold and quiet. Children cavorted; dogs leapt. New woodcuts were hurriedly pressed.
The chestnut boughs were frozen in place, and the wedding was set for the longest night of the year, so that the feast could last as long as possible.
In the Cities of Coin and Spice, page 255
I want to live where Catherynne Valente is in charge of the seasons.
Read her speech as this year's Winter Queen, and you will too. Read her poetry such as Apocrypha and Oracles, read her books (both volumes of The Orphan's Tales, Grass-Cutting Sword, The Labyrinth), and you will hear the voice of a daughter of the earth, recounting her Mother's stories.
They are old, old stories, and all women know them in their bones. But most bones don't sing, and so those stories stay pent in their white cages, peering out of the windows of the eyes. Catherynne's bones do sing, though -- like Aeolian harps in the wind, the moving air of every season evoking a different carillon. Her carol to winter is as perfect as the frozen bell of a crocus in the snow.
She writes with a casual and ruthless grace, like a lioness or the sea. Calling her work simply delicate does it an injustice. Delicacy implies frailty, and her work is powerful. The precision of her words is not done in brushstrokes but in engraving: the line may be fine and is certainly fair, but it bites deep. Her voice is not dewy cobwebs, but stars and steel.
She may have grown up in a desert, as she says, but there is an aspect of deserts that only their inhabitants know: they are the cradles of frost. Their nights are vast, and the winter stars come down and stroll on the edges of the sky, singing. Catherynne is a veritable Queen of Air and Darkness, and with those stars in her train, we welcome her as our Winter Queen as well.
Catherynne M. Valente's Winter Queen Speech
Once upon a time there was a girl who had grown up in a wide golden desert called California, where there was sagebrush and saguaro but nothing like snow, where even in December the sun was warm and high. When she was grown, this girl moved far away to the east where there were cornfields and terrible burned out factories and blasted stone flats -- but there she discovered a land where the year begins when the summer ends: the leaves blaze red, and the acorns fall, and the world waits breathless for the snow that in her home would have been a miracle, a legend, an impossible grace.
She danced in the snow, and laughed, and stuck out her tongue. She made hot chocolate and cider and stayed home from school even though she didn't have a school to go to. She built fires of smoky cedar wood while it melted in her hair, and she watched it fall through blue moonlight outside her bedroom window. She even insisted on walking barefoot through it, wild west-born girl that she was.
But people said to her: 'Can't you see it? It's awful and cold and it freezes the pipes. The highways have to be salted and the driveways have to be shoveled out.'
She filled up her hands with snow and said: 'But it changes everything! It makes another city out of the factories and the fields and the flats, it makes this place an otherworld that's magic, and silent, like a monastery, holy and frozen and pristine. It makes houses look like gingerbread or holes dug in the earth. It makes the world look so perfect it couldn't possibly be real, as though nothing had ever gone wrong in the whole history of it. Can't you see it?'
And this girl began to think very seriously about winter, never having been properly introduced to it before. She thought that perhaps the world had it backwards: nothing dies in the snow, it is not the end of life, the elderly dotage of the year. It is the beginning, when all the seeds and bulbs are still sleeping way down deep in the black. It is the very newest and cleanest and sweetest of hours, when there is firelight and great roasted birds and bloody, scandalous wines. Bare trees are not dead but transformed into crystal sentinels, heaps of refuse become soft, rounded barrows guarded by wights with bottlecap-eyes. No scar on the earth, no broken tree or blasted stone can be seen, no sorrow can stay -- those are the attendants of spring, and summer, of sad, slow autumn. There is hope in winter, in the absolution of snow. It erases the past, it freezes away rage and cruelty and anguish, it covers the city like a mother's hand and whispers: just wait, my child, just wait and I will take all this grief with me when I go.
And, you know, if you lay your ear to the ice you can hear the Underworld rejoicing, all round the Styx and the Elysian Fields, a tumult of joy, and Hades in gold at the head of the precession, for its mistress, his wife, has come home. And the girl, in her warm gingerbread house, with a fire in her hearth and ice on her eaves, thought that though all the books said that winter was not her kingdom, that she -- so young! -- was a child of green spring, of summer at best, that it was here that she had found a throne beneath the snow, with December and January like sleek grey wolves at her heels. It was under the ice that her heart was well-kept, deep in the snow that she could be forgiven anything, in the frigid wind that her blood beat highest, and promised things so very rich, so very bright.
Websites are odd creatures, existing in a realm every bit as fey as the Celtic Twilight or our visions of the Arabian Nights. So it is appropriate that Valente's Website gets a look-see by Kathleen Bartholomew as it indeed is a work of a master storyteller: 'As befits a world-maker like Catherynne M. Valente, her blog site is a world unto itself. It's fascinatingly multi-layered and yields several dimesions of delight to a dedicated explorer. It appears to be closely maintained by Ms. Valente herself, and gives an intensely personal view into the workings of her mind and professional life.' Read Kathleen Bartholomew's look at her lovely website thisaway.
Iain Nicholas Mackenzie, Green Man Senior Librarian, sat down over a late afternoon High Tea in the Robert Graves Memorial Reading Room in the Library here at the Green Man offices for an interview with Catherynne that touched upon many things including inevitable comparisons between The Arabian Nights and Orphan's Tales, the possibility of a short story anthology, and why coffee is like pizza!
He also took a break from working on the upcoming Brian and Wendy Froud edition to talk in the Pub over a few pints of Guinness with another master artist, Michael William Kaluta. We interviewed him for ths edition because he did the stunning interior illustrations for both volumes of The Orphan's Tales duology! Now let's hear what he had to say here.
Camille Alexa describes Valente's debut novel The Labyrinth as 'not a novel so much as a journey through words and space, a voyage, Alice-like, through a wonderland of images and emotion. Those looking for something more than a simple story -- for something rare and beautiful and breathtaking in its headlong flight -- will not be disappointed.'
Valente's follow-up effort, Yume No Hon: The Book of Dreams, also found favour with Camille: 'Yume No Hon sustains its lushness throughout. The characters are more readily understandable than those of The Labyrinth, its storyline more linear. It is in many ways more easily accessible than her debut novel, and even more beautiful for that greater accessibility.'
Deborah J. Brannon was not quite so taken with the volume she read, The Grass-Cutting Sword, which she feels 'has the blush of a first manuscript. The prose is mental effluvia transmitted to paper, sticky with bile and with the contents running any which way into each other. The interweaving of monster with maiden only works at points and is mostly too chaotic to be organic, leaving the reader in a state of confusion rather than understanding. Her ever-present description is often so over-wrought as to be nonsensical and there is an overwhelming selection of unfortunate metaphors and poor word choices.'
Tiffany Matthews has glowing praise for both volumes of The Orphan's Tales duology: In the Night Garden and its recent sequel, In the Cities of Coin and Space. Of the first book, she says 'Valente's prose is creative and sophisticated; her imagery is intricate and arresting . . . Any lover of well-written fantasy will find much to enjoy about Valente's book, for the dozens of diverse and extraordinary tales in the volume share magic as their binding factor.' And the second volume 'rewards the courageous with exhilarating heights evoked by the stellar beauty of Valente's language and the pure ingenuity of her luminously unforgettable characters.'
Cheryl Morgan chastised us for not having a review of The Descent of Inanna so she offered us one: 'I’m probably not the best person in the world to be reviewing poetry, but I do have a strong interest in mythology, and when I heard that Catherynne M. Valente was producing a series of long-form poems based on "descent into the underworld" myths I was going to be first in the queue for review copies. Especially as the first title in the series happened to be The Descent of Inanna. I might not know much about poetry, but I am probably one of the few people in the SF&F community who owns a translation of the original Sumerian poem (Wolkstein & Kramer, for those who are interested). Read her review here.
Robert M. Tilendis found it difficult to connect with the poetry in Valente's two collections Apocrypha and A Guide to Folktales in Fragile Dialects, concluding: 'I remind myself that Valente is still a young writer. That is not a dismissal, but an expectation: she certainly has talent, no doubt on that score, but it's rather like hearing Mozart's early symphonies -- there's no way of knowing that young musician will eventually compose something as overwhelming as the Requiem, and in the meantime you've heard Bach's 'Mass in B Minor' and Haydn's 'Creation.' Moving into that territory, already occupied by some formidable people, requires not only power but finesse.'
JoSelle Vanderhooft steps away from Valente's books to take a listen to 'perhaps the coolest 'spin-off' to come from Valente's latest project . . . two companion recordings by mythpunky singer/songwriter S.J. Tucker -- 2006's For the Girl in the Garden and this year's Solace and Sorrow, which intersperse Tucker's inspired readings of passages from each text with songs based on characters and incidents in each book.' For a more indepth look at the recordings, read the entirety of JoSelle's review.
JoSelle also reviewed a book of Valente's poetry, Oracles: A Pilgrimage, which she proclaims 'a masterful work, and one that deserves far more attention than it has received so far.' Read her full review for details and an excerpt.
Valente herself provides us with a rare treat in this reading of her own work. In one interview, Valente called this offering 'the very sweet and sad and not very dramatic at all tale of the teamaker and the shoemaker.' Listen to discover why she pronounces this touching little story of teahouses and dreams and silk-threaded slippers 'one of my favorites.'
Our reviewers can rave -- or not -- over the lyricism, the power, the delicacy, the clarity or obscurity of a particular author or her writing. But what could be better than experiencing a work as it is meant to be experienced: directly, for good or for ill? Here for the edification and -- we hope -- delight of our Green Man readership is Valente's'The Surgeon's Wife'.
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