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In the Night Garden - Catherynne M. Valente I'd heard great things about this book, but avoided it because it's described as a collection of short stories, and I don't much like short stories. I shouldn't have worried. It's true that In the Night Garden has an unusual structure: stories within stories within stories. The frame story involves an orphan girl telling stories to a prince, and within her stories, characters tell each other stories about their own lives. It works so well because they're all interconnected; this isn't a collection of short stories so much as one big novel (published in two volumes) told in an unconventional way.

Much has been made of the originality of these stories, and rightly so. Some of them are bizarre, and it takes a little while to get used to the world and the author's imagination, but they're clever and fun and interesting. Someone more familiar with fairy tales from around the world would probably recognize more here than I did, since there's a semi-mythological feel to the stories and they're certainly not all European-inspired; I enjoyed them without knowing where most came from, but it was an extra treat when I did. And I love the way Valente plays with real-life fairy tales. For instance, the quasi-Cinderella story early in the book: there's a girl whose mother dies, and her father remarries. The listeners think they know where this is going.... but no, the stepmother and stepdaughter come to love each other deeply, making the stepsisters jealous, and the end is an inversion of the traditional Cinderella tale.

Which brings up another thing I loved about this book, which is that it's full of active female characters who have meaningful and complex relationships with each other. There are mothers and daughters and sisters, friends and colleagues, mentors and apprentices and disciples, women and their female monster companions. (There are a lot of monsters here. Bizarre and interesting and non-evil monsters. And it just shows how male-dominated our myths tend to be that I noticed whenever a monster turned out to be female, which is often.) It's not a book that beats you over the head with its feminism or a rah-rah-sisterhood book; there aren't character filibusters on gender issues, nor groups of girls who get together and swear eternal sisterhood and are always there in each other's times of need. It's darker than that--these aren't Disneyfied fairy tales--and it's a book that lets readers draw their own conclusions.

Valente's writing style is lovely, and I found myself marking passages because they were clever, or really spoke to me, which isn't something I often do. Others have complained about the proliferation of unusual similes, but where normally tics like that bother me more and more as I go along, here it either got better as the book went on or I stopped noticing. With an intricate plot full of fascinating and bizarre stories and characters, this book has a lot to recommend it. My biggest complaint is the deckle edge pages, which I always hate, but especially so in a book like this that demands flipping back and forth as stories begin to fit together and cast new light on things mentioned previously.

Ultimately, I'd recommend The Orphan's Tales to almost anyone, with the caveat that it requires some concentration; I read In the Night Garden and In the Cities of Coin and Spice (really one book in two volumes) over about three and a half weeks, during which I was quite busy, and with one other book in between, and despite my being a detail-oriented reader there were occasional references I didn't remember. Ideally you'd read both books over a long weekend with few distractions. One of these days I'll have to read them again--and yes, they are that good.