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The Habitation of the Blessed (A Dirge for Prester John #1)

3.98 of 5 stars 3.98  ·  rating details  ·  688 ratings  ·  129 reviews
This is the story of a place that never was: the kingdom of Prester John, the utopia described by an anonymous, twelfth-century document which captured the imagination of the medieval world and drove hundreds of lost souls to seek out its secrets, inspiring explorers, missionaries, and kings for centuries. But what if it were all true? What if there was such a place, and a ...more
Paperback, 269 pages
Published November 1st 2010 by Night Shade Books (first published March 1st 2010)
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I absolutely loved Catherynne Valente's The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, which is a children's book filled with the madcap ideas crammed into every sentence. The Habitation of the Blessed is an adult fantasy novel filled with the madcap ideas crammed into every sentence, but whereas Fairyland is full of allusions to both traditional fantasy and other children's fantasy literature, Habitation is based on the medieval legend of Prester John. The allusions come fa ...more
Kat  Hooper
ORIGINALLY POSTED AT Fantasy Literature.

[Note: I listened to Brilliance Audio’s version of The Habitation of the Blessed read by Ralph Lister. It took me a while to adjust since I have recently listened to Lister read three installments of The Gorean Saga and I at first had a hard time hearing the priest Prester John instead of the sadistic misogynist Tarl Cabot. But I got over this soon enough and thought that Mr. Lister did a great job with this one.]

In The Habitation of the Blessed, Catherynn
So we know that Habitation of the Blessed is about the legend of Prester John. But it could also be a radical re-interpretation of Wonders of the East, the book of marvels written around 1000 AD detailing a race of disfigured humans that Alexander was thought to have encountered in his travels to India. Here's an excerpt from it, featuring some of the "grotesques" (panotii, blemmye, and amyctrya) that are humanized so poignantly by Valente in her novel:

See how static and placid they are? How th
Jenny (Reading Envy)
Of all of Valente’s works, this reminds me of The Orphan’s Tales, the way there are multiple stories that are loosely connected in an overarching narrative. But somehow, it is much more intricate, and I was drawn in by this tree of books that is encountered early on by Brother Hiob of Lucerne. The interweaving stories in the book come from this tree, but they may act more like fruit than paper.

“This tree bore neither apples nor plums, but books, where fruit should sprout. The bark of its great
According to New Testament apocrypha, Saint Thomas, the Christian apostle who famously refused to believe that Jesus had risen from the dead (hence, doubting Thomas), is believed to have sailed to India in the middle of the first century AD to spread the Good Word among the ancient Jewish communities of the Malabar Coast. There he established the first Christian church in Asia, the Church of the East, also known as the Nestorian Church, which survived nearly 1,500 years until a schism in the 16t ...more
 Danielle The Book Huntress (Self-Proclaimed Book Ninja)
I'm not sure what to say right now, except this was a very good book. I'd recommend being open minded about religion if you read it.

Reviewed for Bitten by
I thought the premise was fascinating - what if the Prester John letter were real? (I actually picked this up due to her Big Idea post on Scalzi's blog). And it started out pretty promising, with three intertwined stories. It could have done with some sort of glossary, as there were a ton of races of non-existent beasts, and I hadn't heard of some of them before and had trouble keeping them straight.

And got literary, which is to say confusing and nonsensical. The author apparently cou
Once again, Catherynne Valente's lyrical prose and masterful comprehension of world mythologies come together to create a book so achingly beautiful that I didn't want to reach the end.

The fable of Prester John really was the first fake viral meme to infect the world. But unlike today's "Good Times Virus" warnings, Prester John's tale arrived in the form of a letter to the ruler of Constantinople in the 12th Century. No one has ever determined who wrote the letter, in which "John" boasted that h
This book is made of some of my favorite ingredients:

1. It's a book about books and reading: translating, writing, reading, storytelling, listening, even transcribing.

2. It's got all kinds of wordplay about this, particularly a gorgeous, complicated conceit about composition and decomposition -- the sort of thing that reminds me of the happiest and most fantastical lectures I attended while studying early modern English literature.

3. Some of the characters are from a recognizable history of the
Amal El-Mohtar
Here is what I wrote to the author upon finishing this book:

Today I finished reading The Habitation of the Blessed. I love it. This was a book that I approached with some caution, having so loved the short story, having so loved your reading of one of Imtithal's chapters, having felt so near to its construction and so far from its execution -- like you were always speaking to me from that land while asking me for words to seed that rich earth. To read this book, Cat, was to find paths of our con
Every Cat Valente book I've ever read has been somewhat overwhelming--she constructs narratives and narrators that come alive and pierce you with their words until your soul is bleeding. This book is no exception; The Habitation of the Blessed is a work of art, and reading it was both agony and ecstasy.

Valente blends myth and history and faith together to tell the "real" story of Prester John, his journey beyond the end of the world, and what he found there. The book begins with a missionary na
Gorgeous. A beautiful mythos, interesting and compelling narrative. The book is filled with wonder and joy. Through the lyric prose, Valente shares with the reader her obvious love of language, philosophy, history, theology, and mythology. Intertwined stories of Pentexore, a land of creativity, humor, love, sensuality, and immortality, contrast with an ascetic mindset. It's challenging and layered, and writing this review freshly after reading it is difficult because I want to give the book its ...more
A few years ago, reading about the Lewis and Clark expedition, I was surprised to learn that Thomas Jefferson believed the Corps of Discovery would find, among other things in the then-unknown western reaches of America, a race of headless people with faces on their chests. I now know, thanks to Catherynne Valente's The Habitation of the Blessed, that this (along with the Fountain of Youth and other marvels) was part of the Prester John myth, transplanted whole from 13th century Europe to 18th c ...more
Another really solid effort from Valente - I'm really loving her fantasy work. The main story is about a Nestorian (Christian) monk named John, who in the early medieval period goes on a mission of sorts to the East to search for the tomb of Thomas the Apostle. He becomes lost in a land full of mythical creatures, all immortal, and struggles to determine whether he has found the lost Garden of Eden or some circle of hell. The structure of this piece is very interesting. It's three books in one, ...more
Catherynne M. Valente has written some interesting (if nothing else) books, and I’ve stuck with her through some strange digressions, but with “The Habitation of the Blessed” (Night Shade, $14.99, 272 pages), she’s lost me.

“The Habitation of the Blessed” is billed as volume one in A Dirge for Prester John, and it’s a sometimes grotesque, always unsettling novel set in a fantasy land where all the weird variations on humanity that ancient writers could imagine are all too real. For example, one o
I often find Catherynne M. Valente's work difficult to categorize (unless "Can I read it NOW?" counts as a category). I tend to conceptualize books based on what I read them for - fun characters, well-built fantasy world, interesting philosophical science-fiction, entertaining writer, and so on. But Valente doesn't really fit in to any of those mental maps. I mean, her stories are lovely, but tied up in the fact that her stories, as stories, WORK is the way that she weaves words together into a ...more
Okay, I've just finished reading this one (for the second time, mind you) and since the sequel is crying out for me to start reading THAT, I figure I should at least put something down for the first one.

As usual, Valente has created a gorgeous, intricate, beautiful MESS of a world that's wonderfully easy to fall into. It's also a lot of WORK, this one. You have characters who's ears wrap around their bodies, characters who's hands are HUGE (just their hands, not the rest of their bodies), a cha
well now here's a toughie.

this book is about a priest's search for Prester John, whom Wikipedia tells me is a figure of legend. in legend, he was king of an eden-like country reputed to be in asia, somewhere in the himalaya. the story of Prester John is wrapped up in the Crusades and in all sorts of Christian theology.

this book is about finding Prester John, sort of. and the book is amazingly well-written, a really lovely tale full of great imagination and beauty. it's not a fast read--even i (w
I have read a number of Valente's books and absolutely adored them. Like her previous books this book was beautifully written with excellent imagery. The book is told from four viewpoints and was a bit harder for me to read than previous books. As such, it was probably my least favorite book of hers to date, that being said it was still incredibly creative and beautifully written.

Brother Hiob of Luzerne stumbles upon a tree that sprouts books instead of fruit while working at a missionary in the
I originally posted this review as a guest on Elfy's blog "Travels Through Iest" when the book came out. For more exposure, I'm going to copy/paste my review here. On the same note: Elfy hosts a great variety of book-reviews, so if you are interested ...

----- Review: ----

Let me start with the superficial: this is a very well made book. The cover art actually matches the contents. The book is made of thick, very smooth paper, that feels soft to the touch. The edges are crafted to look as if the p
Sarah Jamison
Four point five stars, really. Four and a half. The Habitation of the Blessed seems to me to be a once in a lifetime sort of novel. It is so technically deft you could spend years studying its intricate construction, layer upon layer of metaphor and motif. The four or five different voices telling three or four different stories are vivid and authentic and insightful.

That said, it was so complex that I found I couldn't connect with it. Something about the narrative didn't allow me to sink into
This book started slowly for me. However, by the time I was halfway through, I was enthralled. The basis of the story is the medieval legend of Prester John, who supposedly ruled over a foreign kingdom of mythical creatures. Valente goes far beyond the legend though, and tells a story from the perspective of the inhabitants of the kingdom, for whom everything is possible. Valente also inverts the Christian myth of humanity's redemption through Christ, and creates a land in which the inhabitants ...more
The scope of Valente's imagination is stunning, and she has the depth, style and vocabulary to keep up with it.

I forgive her for not having the 3rd book in this series out. Although, if I had known that beforehand I probably wouldn't have started. I really don't like getting into incomplete series. So I'm going to have to wait before starting book 2 until I'm sure the end is in sight!

While the style was dense, the narrative non-linear and the setting not exactly to my tastes, this was just so we
Edit: On the second attempt to listen to this book, I had a very different experience.

Oh dear LAWD the WORDS that writer uses. I adored reading the book.

I don't have much more coherent to say. Just, THE WORDS.



There is so much to love about this book. I'm just losing my way and taking a break from it.

update: I'm going to have to admit that I'm stalled out in the middle of this one and not likely to return to it. It is a pity
[Name Redacted]
Feb 03, 2013 [Name Redacted] marked it as to-read
*sigh* According to the book's summary, the premise is that the Kingdom of Prester John did exist and everything reported about it was true. That summary then goes on to say that it's not a Christian kingdom, but rather blah blah blah blah. Right away I'm rolling my eyes. Given that the KEY FACTOR IN THE ACCOUNTS OF THE KINGDOM OF PRESTER JOHN was that it was a CHRISTIAN KINGDOM, then obviously everything reported about it WASN'T true according to this novel. I hate clumsy attempts at twists.
Sandra Gilbert
Utterly strangest story EVER and yet hypnotizing in its strangeness and draws you in without you realizing it.
Isabelle B.
This book in insidious. It didn't feel like much when I finished it, but its stories have been rotting in my brain. Like a holy book dissolving into nectar and pulp in your hands, so do these stories grow glittering mold in your brain. I can't stop thinking about blemmye anatomy and multicolored lions and fog so thick you have to dig through it and how awesome and awful is a tree sprouting the head of St. Thomas on a snowy mountainside and seas made of sand and what feeding on sounds feels like ...more
Reading "The Habitation of the Blessed" is like diving into the deepest literary rabbit-hole. My desire to read it fully in one sitting was constantly thwarted, and each time I found myself emerging a little befuddled, as though waking from a deep dream. Valente's prose is so thick and rich that it's almost impenetrable for me at first, but after a brief effort I'm sucked in whole and fighting the urge to read as fast as I can to get to every single spectacular sentence.

What impresses me most in
The Habitation of the Blessed is based on the myth of Prester John, which I had absolutely no familiarity with. I know I'm missing out on things because it's all new to me, but it did not hamper my enjoyment of the book at all.

The book starts out slow. Very slow. I've read Valente before, and I knew I would be rewarded if I pressed on, but people who are not familiar with her work might be turned off. I would not recommend this as the first book of hers to read.

After the inital slog, I started
I love Catherynne Valente as an author. She always manages to create these deeply intricate worlds, populated with both the fantastical and the everday. The best of her books is The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, but this is also a very good book. It is alittle difficult initially to completely understand what is going on, but as you continue, it becomes obvious that this was purposefully done. The reader is following the pilgrimage of Hiob von Luzern, a priest a ...more
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Catherynne M. Valente was born on Cinco de Mayo, 1979 in Seattle, WA, but grew up in in the wheatgrass paradise of Northern California. She graduated from high school at age 15, going on to UC San Diego and Edinburgh University, receiving her B.A. in Classics with an emphasis in Ancient Greek Linguistics. She then drifted away from her M.A. program and into a long residence in the concrete and cam ...more
More about Catherynne M. Valente...

Other Books in the Series

A Dirge for Prester John (3 books)
  • The Folded World (A Dirge for Prester John, #2)
  • The Spindle of Necessity (A Dirge for Prester John, #3)
The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making (Fairyland, #1) Deathless (Deathless, #1) The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There (Fairyland, #2) In the Night Garden (The Orphan's Tales, #1) Palimpsest

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“I reminded myself: when a book lies unopened it might contain anything in the world, anything imaginable. It therefore, in that pregnant moment before opening, contains everything. Every possibility, both perfect and putrid. Surely such mysteries are the most enticing things You grant us in this mortal mere -- the fruit in the garden, too, was like this. Unknown, and therefore infinite. Eve and her mate swallowed eternity, every possible thing, and made the world between them.” 26 likes
“Children, you must understand, are monsters. They are ravenous, ravening, they lope over the countryside with slavering mouths, seeking love to devour. Even when they find it, even if they roll about in it and gorge themselves, still it will never be enough. Their hunger for it is greater than any heart to satisfy. You mustn't think poorly of them - we are all monsters that way, it is only that when we are grown, we learn more subtle ways to snatch it up, and secretly slurp our fingers clean in dark corners, relishing even the last dregs. All children know is a sort of clumsy pouncing after love. They often miss, but that is how they learn.” 16 likes
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