Catherynne M. Valente's first "major release," The Orphan's Tale: In the Night Garden, differs significantly from the other finalists. While the other three finalists that I reviewed so far were either the beginning or the continuation of a multi-volume saga, Valente's book is not so much a novel as it is a frame story that has dozens of other stories nested within it. This makes for a reading experience that is unlike most of the fiction that is published under the SF aegis every year. Whether or not one will enjoy this type of story depends heavily upon the skills of the author and how well each story relates to each other and to the frame story.
The Basics:The Orphan's Tale: In the Night Garden is the first volume of a duology (the second volume, The Orphan's Tale: In the Cities of Coin and Spice, is due to be released next week in the US). It opens with a deceivingly simple frame story: A girl with odd, tattooed eyes has been sequestered in a garden. Nearby, a boy prince lives. Curious, this boy wanders into this forbidden zone and he and the girl strike up a conversation. Fascinated by her eyes, the prince becomes more and more enthralled with the stories that she begins to tell. These stories, which often involve people, animals, and situations that might at first glance seem akin to those of The Arabian Nights, quickly bend and twist preconceived notions of how a fairy tale ought to commence and end. Monsters have a sensitive side. Transformations occur that are not wholly undesired. Dreams beget dreams and a whole host of possibilities and alternate meanings arise within the texts of stories that feel "familiar" to readers. And through it all, these themes revert back to the frame tale and perhaps to our own fascination with stories and the imagined possibilities that fairy tales bear. This volume ends with dawn breaking and the stories ending; albeit only for a time and perhaps with a more ominous tale to emerge from this meeting of the prince and the mysterious tattooed girl.
Valente demonstrates here the ability to create vivid tales that bear only just enough of a passing resemblance to "traditional" European fairy tales to seem familiar, but which also contain elements of Eastern legends and things more modern in scope and feel. She displays a great talent for turning a phrase and to making the various characters and situations feel as though if they were first told by bards or minstrels rather than being composed by a single author in the first years of the 21st century. In the Night Garden shows more creativity and imagination than virtually every other recent release in fantasy literature. In a field where the created vistas are praised, Valente's prose and the resulting imagery stands out.
This is not her first novel, but it certainly is more reader-friendly than the beautifully poetic/prose works like Yume no Hon that she had published prior to In the Night Garden. As I said above, she really demonstrates an ability with the English language, but in this case, it feels more "natural" and less "distant" than what I have read of her earlier works. In the Night Garden very well may be her masterpiece and that alone ought to earn her praise for years to come in genre circles.
In the Night Garden is not a book that you can read quickly, if one even ought to desire to do so. As a series of interconnected stories, it is easy for the inattentive reader or one with a short attention span to get "lost" among the myriad shifts of setting, characters, and motives. Although Valente keeps the descriptions to a relatively concise level, some readers used to a more spare writing style may find her writing to be a bit too ornate for their tastes. Finally, some people would rather read a linear novel than to read a rapidly-changing series of stories that in places only vaguely connect to each other and to the frame story.
If the World Fantasy Awards were awarded solely on the basis of inventiveness, In the Night Garden would certainly get the nod. But since they are distributed as much on the ability to craft a story and to create a memorable setting, it is tough to predict how In the Night Garden will fare. Personally, right now (with the King still remaining to be read and reviewed) I would say that the two most deserving candidates are Wolfe and Valente. Not only does she demonstrate an ability to imagine a vivid world in which to people her creative stories, but her writing and characterization are up to that huge task. I chose In the Night Garden over Soldier of Sidon last year in my Best 2006 Releases post here on the OF Blog, and I'm again going to give the edge to Valente, although it certainly would not surprise or disappoint me if Wolfe or even Kushner were to be chosen the winner.