In a time and place where readers, especially those who are active online with blogs and message board sites, demand not just speed but also quality from their favorite authors, it becomes a bit of a frustrating task to wait for the author's next work. After all, the sequel might not equal the magic of the first, or beloved characters or settings might be abandoned for new vistas and other personae. Considering that the first half of Catherynne M. Valente's The Orphan's Tale, In the Night Garden, was a finalist for the 2007 World Fantasy Award for Best Novel, the weight of expectations can become too much for most books, even those as talented as Valente.
Thankfully, this second volume, In the Cities of Coin and Spice, not only maintains the story-within-a-story structure that made In the Night Garden an enchanting read, but that it pushed the frame story forward in such a way as to make the storyteller, the mysterious girl in the Sultan's garden with the tattooed eyes, herself a part of the overall arc of the storyline. Like its predecessor, In the Cities of Coin and Spice takes the framework of the nameless girl telling stories from her tattooed eyes to one of the Sultan's boys as the basis for tales that touch upon desire, loss, questing, and occasionally redemption. With djinn, funereal coins, and other symbols of death, life, and the in-between, Valente weaves many more tales within this volume that flit about the edges of our shared cultural pasts, with many twists that show that the standard formulas can be tweaked to reveal new truths about how stories reflect our presents as well as our pasts.
The pacing, development, and linking of the stories is on par with that of the first volume. While only the final connecting story held as much power for me as the first volume's Bear thread, it was enough to convince me that this second volume is a worthy successor to the first. Valente is a damn fine storyteller and I know I shall be re-reading these two volumes many times in the years to come, as the re-readability is very high. Readers will read these tales not just to find out what happens next, but also shall re-read them to marvel at how well these stories fit in with the older oral storytelling tradition. This is a serious candidate for my personal Best of 2007 list and I would be disappointed if none of the major awards (Hugo, Nebula, WFA) do not consider In the Cities of Coin and Spice for the 2008-2009 award season.
Publication Date: October 30, 2007 (US), tradeback.
Publisher: Bantam Spectra