Since I often read free, out-of-copyright ebooks, a few typographical or formatting errors don’t bother me. If the errors are too egregious, I can usuSince I often read free, out-of-copyright ebooks, a few typographical or formatting errors don’t bother me. If the errors are too egregious, I can usually find another free version or pay 99 cents for a cleaner copy. In the Kindle edition of The Omikuji Project, however, errors are pervasive: the title of every story starts on one page and continues to the next; the first word of each story is decapitated; indentation of paragraphs seems largely a matter of chance; other formatting errors chop pages of prose into chunks of bad poetry; and pages numbers (when they appear at all) turn up in the strangest places (sometimes attached to the author’s name, sometimes to the chapter and title, sometimes alone). It’s the last of these that bothered me the most – it added a mad-lib quality that shattered my suspension of disbelief and dragged me back to reality (a dubious pleasure, at best). From there, I’d seek the lost thread and grumble my way to the conclusion, but only rarely did I regain the sense of full immersion in a fantasy world.
Here’s a particularly jarring example from “The Legend of the Good Women”:
"…Lucretia Weeping virgin’s blood—what a good girl, Catherynne M. Valente 55 the best of girls exempla to all the rest!"
It takes the intrusive narrator too far.
As for the content, I enjoy both old and new fairy tales. When reading modern tales, I mentally classify each according to my own Aarne-Thompson system (aside from the obvious distinction between fairy tales written for an adult audience, and “adult” fairy tales).
*Traditional Tales – these include: traditional stories with traditional characters told in a modern style, original works told in a traditional style, and traditional stories told from a non-traditional point of view *Propaganda Pieces – where the author contorts the story until it supports the moral of the moment *Subverted Stories – the good guys are bad, the monsters are misunderstood, the princess rescues herself (or the prince, who is neither handsome nor charming) *Modernized Variants – these include the purely symbolic story (a sort of Anti-Magical Realism, where magic becomes metaphor – the fairy godmother is a wealthy relative, the wolf is a sexual predator), Urban Fantasy (sometimes magic is an everyday fact of life as accepted as electricity, sometimes it is hidden and practiced by the elect), and Science Fiction (where a sufficiently advanced science takes the place of magic) *Metafiction – the characters are aware of being in a fairy tale and either modify their behavior with this knowledge, or fatalistically trudge to a foregone conclusion
I’ve read both good and bad stories from every category (even the purely symbolic stories – “Rats” by Veronica Schanoes re-imagines Sleeping Beauty with the spindle replaced by a heroin needle and the enchanted sleep as the ensuing drug haze). It’s the writing that makes the difference. Usually, the fairy tales fit neatly into one of my categories. With the individual works of The Omikuji Project, however, the categories merge, one fairy tale bleeds into another, and the universe of fairy tales overlaps with various mythologies (Eastern and Western). Each story resists classification; each is a Platypus of literary taxonomy. Sometimes this mishmash of overlapping Venn Diagrams works out beautifully, as in “A Postcard from the End of the World”, where all the forbidden fruit of myth and legend grow on a single tree (with peculiar guardians – aphids that suck immortality and death, good and evil, discord and beauty from the fruit). Conversely, “The Economy of Clouds” (an amalgam of Japanese goddesses, Norse giants, a Judeo-Christian heavenly bureaucracy, and Jack and the Beanstalk as a parable for the bad economy and a “Just-so” tale for why the British Empire collapsed) falls flat though it’s played for laughs.
I read elsewhere that Valente is “in love with words” – and that love shows through with phrases like “archetypical architecture”. But she can also be a fickle and sometimes an undiscerning lover. No sooner has she introduced us to synaesthesia (gleaming gold in his extroversion), then she’s off with a dazzling simile, then on to some dark and brooding imagery. Occasionally, the words are interesting but out of place, and stand out like a tattooed biker at a debutante’s ball. Other times, she’s enamored of a phrase she shows off to her friends, who smile for her sake, but privately whisper among themselves that she could have done better.
“A Hole to China” provides examples. Tristam, the morbidly shy heroine, seeks to “dig a little highway” to China, but understands “you could not just leap onto the interstate wherever you liked—you needed an on-ramp”. The problem is that the heroine is twelve, and twelve year-olds (even exceptional ones) don’t think in terms of highways and on-ramps. Their thoughts are more pedestrian. When Tristam later speaks to an anthropomorphic crow, the crow opines that “It’s very hard to push a figure of speech into the world, as hard as a child” – considering the speaker is a bird and the audience is a child, the simile, while interesting, isn’t particularly apt. Deeper in the world, in a blisteringly hot subterranean city where the natives run around naked, Tristam dresses from head to toe in black salamander skin for protection from the heat, and exclaims that she looks like “a sort of hooker-y ninja”. The ninja I understand, but ninja child prostitution is an unhelpful fragment of imagery (is it still imagery when it suggests no mental image?) that a shy child would not have said aloud even had her imagination suggested it.
Additionally, some of the modifiers are misplaced just enough that the initial image conflicts with the intended meaning: “a dream of falling mirrors” becomes “a dream of falling mirrors depression in the patient”.
Finally, two of the short stories are actually chapters from longer works (Deathless and The Habitation of the Blessed). Had they been appended to the end of the work (as is usual with previews), they would have seemed like bonus material, but mixing them in with the text made me feel as though I had been cheated out of two stories. I am glad these excerpts were included – I will buy Deathless, but The Habitation looks sufficiently disturbing to avoid completely.
Most of my complaints stem from the Kindle edition. Had I not been periodically jarred back into reality, I doubt I would have noticed as many flaws. Some of the stories were quite interesting ("Mullein", "A Postcard from the End of the World", "How to Raise a Minotaur") and rest were at least novel. It was a good introduction to her writing.
People bothered by formatting errors in professional etexts, though, should avoid the Kindle edition. ...more
I read Ringstones (along with The Dollmaker and The Sound of His Horn) previously, so bought this collection for the short stories (well, novelettes).I read Ringstones (along with The Dollmaker and The Sound of His Horn) previously, so bought this collection for the short stories (well, novelettes).
Of the four stories (A Christmas Story, Capra, Calmahain, and The Khan), Calmahain stands out, and this collection is worth buying just for that story. Set in the English countryside during the Blitz, Calmahain features two imaginative children (around 14-years-old) playing the game of "Journeys", where each goes his or her separate path and imagines being an explorer of a fantasy world, then return to the "inn" to share the experiences. Some of Sarban's usual dark fantasy bleeds in at points (especially at the end), but overall, it's much lighter than his novels.
A Christmas Story is much more firmly grounded in reality -- not fantasy, but a touch of lost-world science fiction. Capra and The Khan get back into fantastic elements, especially the latter, told as a fairly long frame story with an improbable premise, which the listener finds himself believing in spite of his initial skepticism.
Sarban (John William Wall) was an English diplomat in the Middle East during the 1930's to 1950's, and both A Christmas Story and The Khan contain historical detail of countries (Egypt and Iran) on the verge of breaking free of colonial rule that are as interesting as the stories themselves.
Some of the sexual subtext of the novels shows up in Capra and The Khan, but, like the novels, remains subtext. It's a little less subtle than the hints and suggestions of Ringstones (which could be missed by unsophisticated readers), but is never explicit....more