Myths of Origin
Catherynne M. Valente
Wyrm Publishing, 2011
Let me begin by admitting that this review will not do Catherynne M. Valente’s book(s) justice. Valente is one of my favourite authors, and is, in my opinion, one of the most talented and exciting writers of fantasy working today. Her imagination is vast, her skill nigh unsurpassable, and her writing is consistently beautiful, awe-inspiring, and shocking. Be prepared: this is going to be an adjective-heavy review, and yet I can tell you now that it still won’t be able to fully describe what I think about Valente’s work. But, hell, I’m going to try anyway.
Myths of Origin is an omnibus edition of Valente’s early prose works. It comprises four novellas: The Labyrinth, Yume No Hon: The Book of Dreams, The Grass-Cutting Sword, and Under In The Mere. Each work is very different, and yet similar concerns and tropes also run through them, making it fascinating to have them collected together in such a way. In brief, the four novellas use existing myths and legends as springboards in order to launch the reader into fresh, revisionist perspectives, and to explore the psyches of their characters. The Labyrinth, as its title suggests, extrapolates its narrative from the Greek labyrinth myth, with minotaur included; Yume No Hon, by contrast, inhabits the mind of a lonely old Japanese woman who in dreams becomes other and all women, mythic or no; in The Grass-Cutting Sword, Valente retells a myth from the Kojiki chronicle, in which she gives voice to the so-called ‘villain’ of the piece, the maiden-eating serpent, reshaping his role and giving us insight into his motivation; likewise, in Under In The Mere each chapter is told by an Arthurian character – the Lady of the Lake, Kay, Lancelot, Bedivere – and others more obscure: these are their stories, if they could tell us themselves. And beyond gleams the light of Avalon, of the otherland, which Valente re-imagines as California, complete with beaches, litter-strewn alleyways, and quayside drunkards.
Have I whet your appetite yet?
While all four of these novellas are fantastic in their own ways, my favourite is The Labyrinth. This is perhaps partly because it was my first foray into Valente’s work, when I bought a separate copy about two years ago (the 2004 Prime books hardback, which incidentally has a beautiful cover). By telling you about The Labyrinth, I hope to give you some glimpse into the quality and depth of Valente’s work in general (though her writings all do different and exciting things in their own rights, of course).
Reading The Labyrinth was an experience that really opened my eyes to what could be done with fantasy, with myths, and with language in general. I realise that that sounds vague and flippant, it isn’t meant to. Truly, I was in awe. The Labyrinth stunned me with its rich, sensuous, and surprising imagery, its visceral-yet-nebulous narrative which reaches beyond the events on the page and ripples outwards with numerous allusions and symbolic resonances, and the eerie and magical characters that walk its pages – all things which I have come to know as characteristic of Valente’s fabulous writing.
In The Labyrinth, a woman wanders through weaving pathways, meeting strange and beguiling creatures – an icy angel and a golden monkey, to name but two – but her progress, whilst often rendered in harsh and physical terms, is not merely corporeal but symbolic (ouch, that’s a painfully reductive way of putting it, but bear with me!). Valente’s novella incorporates mythic logic – of the beast and the maiden, of the three stages of womanhood, maiden-mother-crone – making the protagonist’s journey heavy with meaning. Such allusions do not, however, make the story abstracted and difficult to access as a reader. The symbolic echoes serve to enhance the emotional impact of the story, and even moved me to tears in places. I think, perhaps, that this works so very well because the mythic resonances tap into deep, tender places in the readers’ minds. We sense the weight of cultural, historical, and emotional baggage that these myths carry with them… and it moves something in us. Certainly, the way that Valente uses her allusions is not distancing, but the very opposite – it is intimate and stirring.
Above, I said that Valente’s work was ‘heavy with meaning’. By this, I did not mean to imply that Valente’s prose is turgid or overwrought. Her lush, poetic style may be a little oblique for some readers’ tastes – especially in a market in which ‘transparent’ prose is the norm – but honestly, if you are willing to expend the extra concentration that Valente’s work needs (and deserves!), you will not regret it. With many other authors, you can sense that language is merely a tool via which to tell their swashbuckling story/communicate their great characters. If the writing’s also good, that’s a plus; if not, oh well, the story was pretty fun. The same cannot be said of Valente; in her works, style and content are not divisible. Her writing is more challenging than most, but it is doing something more than most, too. It is language with affect. The reader traverses the linguistic paths as well as the characters, and not all paths are smooth and straight.
If this sounds at all interesting to you, read Valente. Plunge into her words. Revel in them. Breathe them in.
Now that’s magic.
P.S. By the way, Catherynne Valente has a fantastic website, with some really great essays and also links to her fabulous short fiction. I encourage you to check it out.