Reading level: Adult
Size: 352 pages
Publisher: Night Shade Books
Release Date: November 1, 2010
Stand Alone or Series: 1st book in the Dirge of Prestor John series
Rating: 4/5 stars
I have read a number of Valente’s books and absolutely adored them. Like her previous books this book was beautifully written with excellent imagery. The book is told from four viewpoints and was a bit harder for me to read than previous books. As such, it was probably my least favorite book of hers to date, that being said it was still incredibly creative and beautifully written. This story will be continued in, The Folded World.
Brother Hiob of Luzerne stumbles upon a tree that sprouts books instead of fruit while working at a missionary in the Himalayans. He is allowed to pluck three books from the tree. The first is written by Prester John himself and tells of Prester’s journey into magical lands. The second is written by Prester’s wife Hagia; an immortal who carries her face on her chest and has no head. The third is a collection of nursery tales by a being named Imtithal who was a nanny.
This book has a lot of what I have come to love from Valente; crazily creative creatures and descriptions that come alive to the reader, beautiful writing that is incredibly rich and weaves wonderfully magical pictures, and tons of mythological references. The story alternates between Brother Hiob, Prester John, Hagia, and Imtithal. As such it progresses slowly and has more of a plodding mythological and somewhat religious tone to it than previous works.
I enjoyed hearing from Brother Hiob who had to alternate his reading because each of the books he pulled off of the tree started rotting as soon as he plucked them off. As such he becomes obsessed with reading these stories before they rot. I also enjoyed Prester John’s viewpoint as he stumbles into a magical and wonderful land after crossing a sea of sand. Although Prester John’s very catholic religious viewpoints are a bit tiresome at times, it is interesting to see how this new land reacts to his very orthodox viewpoint.
I also enjoyed Hagia’s viewpoint. She is immortal and is a blemmye (has no head, but her face is on her torso). She falls in love with Prester John. Although most of her accounts are about her various lives and loves and it is isn’t until later in the book she meets with Prester John.
I did not enjoy the sections by Imtithal as much. Imtithal has three children she takes care of and is a being with huge ears that can enfold her whole body. You don’t really know how she is related to Prester John until much later in the story. Imtithal tells a number of creation myths to her young charges. I had trouble connecting these with the other parts of the story and constantly had to work on focusing on the stories because my mind would start to wander. I just couldn’t relate to the stories or relate them to the overall book.
This book is a slow read. The writing is incredibly beautiful and well done, but you need to take time to read it and really pay attention to understand what is going on. There is a lot of ambiguity here. The constantly switching viewpoints makes the story progress slowly and presents more of a puzzle that the reader needs to piece together than a cohesive story. It is masterfully done, but slow to read.
Overall I really enjoyed this book and continue to enjoy Valente’s beautiful writing and the absolutely crazy and wacky creatures and worlds that she weaves. This book was a slow read and one you really need to pay attention to and think about while you read. I wasn’t crazy about the changing viewpoints and the way you had to piece the story together. I also had some trouble relating Imtithal’s sections to the rest of the story. If you are a fan of mythology and beautiful writing and don’t mind some ambiguity I can definitely recommend this to you. I didn’t find it to be quite as magical and wonderful as previous books I have read by Valente, but it was still very well done.