The Folded World: A Dirge for Prester John: Volume Two (2011)
Written by: Catherine M. Valente
Pages: 251 (Trade Paperback)
Rating: 7 – Good Read
Series: Book Two (A Dirge for Prester John)
Why I Read It: Valente is a must-read author for me, so when I heard she was releasing the sequel to The Habitation of the Blessed, it was a no-brainer to get. I just waited to see if I’d get it for Christmas before buying, and since I did, it fit nicely towards the top of the Mount TBR challenge, and considering I read The Habitation of the Blessed around this time last year, I figured now would be a good time to read The Folded World.
The premise: ganked from BN.com: When the mysterious daughter of Prester John appears on the doorstep of her father”s palace, she brings with her news of war in the West–the Crusades have begun, and the bodies of the faithful are washing up on the shores of Pentexore. Three narratives intertwine to tell the tale of the beginning of the end of the world: a younger, angrier Hagia, the blemmye-wife of John and Queen of Pentexore, who takes up arms with the rest of her nation to fight a war they barely understand, Vyala, a lion-philosopher entrusted with the care of the deformed and prophetic royal princess, and another John, John Mandeville, who in his many travels discovers the land of Pentexore–on the other side of the diamond wall meant to keep demons and monsters at bay.
These three voices weave a story of death, faith, beauty, and power, dancing in the margins of true history, illuminating a place that never was.
Spoilers, yay or nay?: Yay. If you aren’t caught up, don’t read. Especially do not read if you haven’t yet read The Habitation of the Blessed, because there’s spoilers here for that too. But if you’ve read both books, then you’re caught up, so onward! Everyone else, just jump to “My Rating.”
Discussion: It’s an odd thing. Valente’s writing, her ability to describe startlingly unexpected but vivid images, and her ability to shock me with a kind of truth described in a manner that’s so poetic, it seems simple and beautiful at the same time, is one of the things I love about her work. But I have to admit: I’m not emotionally connected to The Dirge for Prester John. Volume I: The Habitation of the Blessed took me a month to read. And while I read Volume II: The Folded World much more quickly, the fact remains that despite the wonderfully vivid imagery and the quotable passages and the moments that just strike you for their truths, I’m not connecting with The Dirge for Prester John.
It’s an interesting thing to consider. Is it because that until Valente, I’d never heard of the myth in which it was based, or if I heard, I hadn’t cared to begin with? Is the focus on Christianity and colonization just not what I want to be reading about right now, despite the fact that Valente has some very interesting things to say about both?
I think it’s both. Because trust me, I marked passages like crazy in this book because I liked them so well. That’s how awesome Valente’s writing is. But the overall material isn’t connecting with me emotionally, it’s not connecting on that deeper level. The structure doesn’t bother me either: in fact, it’s more predictable and easy to follow than the structure of The Orphan’s Tales, which was more of a Russian nesting doll experience, and The Orphan’s Tales is one of my favorite set of books ever!
So I think I’ll resolve here and now to re-read this series at some undisclosed point in the future. When I’m older and wiser, and not feeling quite so tender about Christianity and missionaries and how so many Christians I interact with on a daily basis feel the need to tarnish the faith by shoving it down everyone’s throats while acting the hypocrite when they think no one’s paying attention (yes, I know not all Christians are like this, but where I live now is not conducive to being around THOSE kinds of Christians; therefore, I’m burnt and tender). It’s not that Valente preaches or shoves anything down anyone’s throat either. She does a fabulous job showing all sides of the story. But for some reason, I’m lacking sympathy while reading about another’s crisis of faith, and in order to connect, I need that empathy. I think, too, that this series (or duology or whatever it will be) is best read back-to-back. Not because I forgot things (though I did a little), but because it’s such a big story for two books, and I think the themes will stick better if I read both books together, rather than a year apart.
But now I have to ask: will there be a third book? I’m thinking there’s only two, especially given the collapse of the Wall and the apparent burning of the tree, but I could be misreading things.
And thinking on my lack of emotional connection to the overall story, I wonder if it’s because of John himself. There’s a key moment towards the end, where John has to explain that in his world, you can’t bury your dead and a tree grow in their place. I thought it was rather selfish of him not to warn them of this BEFORE they left for war. But perhaps he would not have been believed. And perhaps he is just that human, just that selfish.
I think I may connect with these books better when I’m older.
Now let’s move on to the good stuff: glorious, decadent, beautiful Valente quotes!
I shuddered and flushed all together, and I felt as I did once long ago, when a girl came to my window all bright with the night, her eyes full of stars, her lips dark and trembling with the January cold and the very nearness of sin.
Love can come only with time and sentience. We learn it as we learn language — and some never learn it well. Love is like a tool, thought it is not a tool; something strange and wonderful to use, difficult to master, and mysterious in its provenance.
Surely you have noticed that once you write a thing down, it is as good as real. People aren’t strong enough to resist the spell of authority ink casts. It is a kind of magic, and we don’t generally approve.
John was always wrong about God. God is not a man who looks like men, God is not even a blemmye who looks like blemmyae. God is a random event, a nexus of pain and pleasure and making and breaking. It has no sense of timing. It does not obey nice narratives like: a child is born, he grows, he performs miracles and draws companions, then sacrifices himself to redeem a previous event in an old book. That is not how anything works. God is a sphere, and only rarely does it intersect with us — when it does, it crashes, it cracks the surface of everything. It does not part the sea at just the right time. God is too big for such precision.
I had a pleasant holiday in the underworld, where I soon discovered that everyone has three heads — one for the Father, one for the Son, one for the Spirit — one for Past, one for Present, one for Future — one for Child, one for Grown, one for Withered — one for Good, one for Evil, and one for Threading the Needle.
Page 164 (regarding unicorns):
I suppose if you take all the pretty story away, they were always innocent young boys laying their horns in maidens’ laps. I suppose it was always about virginity. The blood and the collar and the girl in the wood. The horn and the wildness of the hunt. The piercing. And I suppose we all knew what the allegory meant, or it wouldn’t be much of an allegory. And an allegory is just a civilized way of lying.
If you take away the lie, the truth remains at the bottom of it, and the truth is shaped like a dead boy.
When you count up the dead, the ones you want to see are never there.
They scurried away. No one wants to stay with an angry monk — dangerous creatures, those.
The panoti have no God — we have never needed one. But I think I know. God is a time, and time is a fire. If it does not burn us from without it lights us from within.
I did have a few small nitpicks with the book. When we get Sefalet’s POV, I have to read one column at a time, which means flipping back and forth between pages. Worse, though, was the question chapter and the answer section, because I kept going back to re-read the questions so the answers would make sense. Irritating, not deal-breaking, but still.
My Rating: 7 – Good Read
I know, it’s not the normal rating of “Excellent,” for a Valente book, but despite some seriously wonderful passages and really vivid and profound moments, the story has a whole does not resonate with me the way Valente’s other fiction has. I’ve heard many say the Prester John series is her best to date, and I feel that this is a set of books that I will re-read some day in the future, as a whole rather than waiting a year between installments. I think, and hope, that the indeterminate date in the future will be a better time for me to connect with the material, as I just can’t do it now. That said, it’s a glorious, vivid book (both books are, really), and there are things I remember about these books that I cannot remember of my favorites from Valente, so that certainly speaks to the power of her writing. Volume Two for A Dirge for Prester John follows the same structure as Volume One, but it leaves me to wonder if this is it, or if Valente has one more title up her sleeve. Given the ending, I don’t see how; yet, given the ending, I feel there’s so much more left to talk about.
Certainly, fans of Valente have to get their hands on this. It may not be my favorite, but it’s not to be missed. Even if this were truly an “off” book for Valente (it isn’t, it’s just me), Valente’s “off” book would surpass many other writers at their best. And this isn’t an off book. It’s just not my favorite of hers.
All that being said, don’t read this without having read A Habitation for the Blessed first, because you will be hopelessly confused otherwise.
Cover Commentary: This cover is far more compelling to me than the cover of the first book, The Habitation of the Blessed. But don’t get me wrong, I love how both covers are consistent in both design and art, but let’s face it: having a cover with a girl with an eye in one palm and a mouth in the other is far more compelling than a cover with a woman who has feathers growing out of her back. But that’s me. I love the coloring, and there’s no doubt that this cover would catch my eye in a store. That being said, once you read the book, you know there’s a mistake: the character featured is Sefalet, and she has no face, but she has an eye on the back of each hand, and a mouth in the palm of each hand. Slight mistake, of course, but it still is one. However, and this makes sense only if you’ve read the book, it’s telling that the mouth featured on the cover is the left-hand one.