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In the Night Garden by Catherynne M Valente

In the Night Garden, part one of The Orphan’s Tales, Catherynne M. Valente tells the story of a strange little girl who is hidden in the gardens of a palace. Or rather, the girl tells the stories, to the young prince who, against the wishes of his parents, befriends the girl. The story she tells weaves in and out of other stories, as the characters in her stories encounter others who then tell their stories. The plot weaves through a prince who encounters a witch, leading to the tale of a grandmother, and then a wolf, and then back to the witch, and then to a nursemaid, and so on.

Filled with fantastical creatures, mythical places, and wizards and witches, In the Night Garden isn’t just one story, but is a tapestry of stories that are interwoven, leading to a dense cloth that continually comes back on itself. At times, it becomes a challenge to remember who’s story you are reading, as they bounce back and forth quite often. As perspective shifts from one character to another, we find that one with seemingly evil or nasty intentions actually has their own back story that is rich and full, that they have motivations that drive their actions that make sense. Every character is fleshed out in a way that is unique, giving everyone such depth.

Valente has a nice touch with words. Her characters all have unique voices, which is impressive given how many different characters we get to know from their own perspective. They come alive with utterances like “I loved the changing character of the sea, how it could be choppy and gray or smooth as glass, like the brow of a wife” or “all things built with tax money are beautiful: so we must think or go mad.” Given that a prince is one of the main characters, there is a lot of talk about kings and power:

  • “In fairness, Kings are often quite as dense, calling themselves scared vessels and masters of all things above and below when in fact they command a few patches of lonely dirt with even lonelier houses sitting upon them.”
  • “Only Princes believe in the greater good. Kings know there is only the Reign, and all things may be committed in its holy name.”
  • “That’s how kinds are made, my brush-tailed girl — they pick a place, shove a stick in it, call themselves King and wait to see if someone gets angry about it.”

The girl at the heart of the story, that begins the tale, so far only describes the stories of others. That seems to be her gift. Exactly how she fits in the plot itself isn’t revealed yet. There are a lot of threads that make part of this tapestry and I’m excited to see what pattern they make when put all together.