Atmospheric, often dark, full of shadows and odd lights peeking around the corners, often inhabited with odd creatures or even versions of ourselves. The best fables and fairy tales across the globe have these in abundance. Who can forget the dark and tangled forests in the Grimm Brothers' adaptations of medieval-to-early-modern French and German tales? Or the djinn of The Arabian Nights? Or the mysterious and often malicious fox-like shapeshifters in certain Japanese tales?
One of the things that immediately drew me in to Catherynne M. Valente's 2006 WFA finalist effort, The Orphan's Tale: In the Night Garden, was her use of language to create a similarly vivid dreamscape populated with shapeshifters and all sorts of people (this is not a typically pasty white's only tale, it bears to be noted), reflecting so many of our wonderfully diverse oral traditions. In her sequel, The Orphan's Tale: In the Cities of Coin and Spice, Valente continues this. I'm going to quote two opening paragraphs, one from the first frame tale (In the Garden) and the second from the first of the tales told in this volume. Notice the way Valente sets the stage in each:
The paths of the Garden were wet with fallen apples and red with their ruptured skin. Rag-clothed winds trailed over grass blanched of green; scarlet swallowed up the thrashing trees until all the many groves stood in long rows like bouquets of bloody flowers with long, black stalks.Descriptive scene openers such as this lead into explorations of myth, human relations, questions of mortality and so many of the other questions of life with which we have engaged ourselves over the millenia. For the artful way that Valente has constructed these tales to reflect other, more ancient fables, she has earned a place on my Best of 2007 Countdown.
The pebbled beach was wet and cold, each gray stone slick with rain and lake and mist. Nothing grew save a thin green mold at the water's edge, no sandpipers pecked at the shore for mites or worms, no cattails knocked against the bitter and scentless wind. Two figures were black against the heavy woolen sky, which leaked a slow, sullen light like wrung sweat. The shapes were featureless save for their curved backs - the one hunched and bone-twisted, the other bent under his satchel. Slowly the one approached the other, until from a distance there was but one great black shape where the two men met and spoke.