A to Z Challenge: O is for “The Orphan’s Tales”

OFor today’s A to Z Challenge post I’m once again going back to the familiar waters of speculative fiction, and will be sharing my impression of one of the most charming fantasy stories I’ve read in the recent decade.

I came across Catherynne M. Valente’s book in Uczta Wyobraźni (Feast of Imagination) series by a Polish publisher, MAG. “The Orphan’s Tales” is actually two books, “In the Night Garden” and “In the Cities of Coin and Spice”, but their structure makes them inseparable, so writing about them both seemed the best idea.

“The Orphan’s Tales” is a story of a girl who meets a prince in the palace gardens, and entertains him telling stories that are tattooed on her body. If that brings “Arabian Nights” tales to your mind, you’re on the right track, for “The Orphan’s Tales” has a similar structure of interlinked stories. Story within a story within a story… and then climbing back to wrap them up, all the way to the initial one. And each piece of the story, no matter how unrelated it may seem, fits perfectly into the mosaic that in the end will reveal the orphan’s own tale.

Polish hardcover edition of "In the Night Garden".
Polish hardcover edition of “In the Night Garden”.

I remember I’ve read the books bit by bit, as each story is short enough for one quick sitting: while commuting or waiting for a class, though it required some focus, since I had to keep in mind all the previous story pieces given to me. No story in the “The Orphan’s Tales” was irrelevant or redundant, so the further I’ve read, the more connections I discovered and the more clear the bigger picture became.

But it’s not only the structure that leaves the lasting impression, it’s also the worldbuilding. Even though the setting feels fairy-tale-like, with all its inexplainable magic or happenings, it also feels very consistent, lending to the book’s mood. Things that would make the reader frown in a fantasy book that strives to be “realistic” within its boundaries, in “The Orphan’s Tales” make a perfect sense, because after all, it’s all tales. And tales have their own rules, don’t they?

What also charmed me in these book was the style. Rich and beautiful, it matched perfectly the book’s atmosphere of a dark and cruel fairy tale that “The Orphan’s Tales” is to me. It makes me regret I didn’t read the book in its original language, thought I think the translation was very good.

Polish hardcover edition of "In the Cities of Coin and Spice".
Polish hardcover edition of “In the Cities of Coin and Spice”.

I wouldn’t say “The Orphan’s Tales” is an easy read. It requires both focus and retaining some information as the books weave back to previously mentioned tales, but time spent with these books is most definitely rewarding. The beautiful style, the interesting story (or maybe stories?) told, and the intricate structure stay with the reader for a long time.

And they also remind me, that somewhere deep in my notebooks, I have a rough sketch of similarly complex idea of interwoven stories, I’m just not brave enough to write it… yet? It makes me glad that Catherynne M. Valente was.

How about you? Do you enjoy challenging reads with multiple POVs and timelines, or do you prefer single POV novels? Would you ever dare to try something that complex?

Joanna Maciejewska

Joanna Maciejewska is a fantasy and science fiction author who enjoys all things SFF: books, movies, and video games. Her short stories appeared in magazines and anthologies in Polish and in English. Her epic fantasy adventure series, starting with By the Pact, is available in ebook and paperback at all major retailers.

This Post Has 4 Comments

  1. G. R. McNeese

    I tried my hand at reading books with multiple POVs, but some I gave up on because there were too many to keep track of. I never thought about trying to write my stories that way, but it’s worth a shot.

    G. R. McNeese from
    Project Blacklight

    1. melfka

      It’s interesting to see someone else’s experience. In my youth, I’ve read quite a few of multiple POV books, so I’m quite used to them and they feel more natural to me, but it’s good to be reminded of other people’s perspectives. 🙂

  2. sjhigbee

    I’ve read books where it’s really worked well – and others where it simply hasn’t. The most ambitious read I ever encountered was Maeve Binchy’s Whitethorn Woods where there were 17 viewpoint characters. It was a cracking read and I was never confused… I MUST track down this book – I really enjoyed Radiance, but several folks mentioned this book and said it was much better. Thank you, as ever, for a beautifully written article.

    1. melfka

      17… Sounds quite ambitious. Though if I was to take the witcher saga (2 story collections and then 5 novels), I think the number of POV could be 3 times bigger. But then, Sapkowski’s skill makes you remember than one guy from three books ago with no problem. 🙂

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