Grace's Reviews > In the Cities of Coin and Spice

In the Cities of Coin and Spice by Catherynne M. Valente
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Jan 14, 08

bookshelves: favorite-books-ever
Read in January, 2008

"Writing about music is like dancing about architecture," or so the old quote says. I can't help but remember this saying as I attempt to write down some of my fragmented, all too feeble thoughts regarding Catherynne Valente's masterwork, The Orphan Tales: In the Night Garden and In the Cities of Coin and Spice. To start out with a bang, I have to tell you what my reaction was upon completing the last page of the second book. It was 1am, and I set the book down, after having to re-read one of the pivotal revelations on the last page and say "ohhh...I SEE." I turned the light out, lay down in bed, and started crying. And I don't just mean a few pinpricks from my eyes like I've had happen for a handful of tales over the years. I mean nose-sniffling, shoulder-shaking crying. I cried and I shook my head as I cried, laughing at myself for reacting more strongly than I had to any book I'd ever read. I cried because the books were done. I cried because the ending was so incredible. I cried because I was in awe of Catherynne Valente, only one year older than me, and having given something to the world of myth and story and imagination that I feel should go into the same column (and high in that column) as the greatest contributors of all time. How can one person have so much inside? And be able to get it all out onto the page?

This book is not an easy read. Let me tell you that straight-out as well. Many people have written reviews saying "I couldn't keep track of the stories" or "the format was too distracting, with the nested stories." I also found this to be true the first time I read the first book. I got to a little over page 100, and returned it to the library. But Valente's name kept cropping up...first on Endicott Studios, featuring an incredible short story I loved, then on Jen Parrish's website, as she created a gorgeous necklace in the shape of a boat with red sails for an auction. I sought out more of Cat's short stories, and I was blown away by every single one. Finally I decided to try the book again, settling down with it at the start of winter, when the fire crackled in my fireplace, and the stories folded around me like blankets against the snow. I approached it with more patience, and gave it time, rather than trying to rush through it. And I discovered that this book was not only good...it was the most imaginative, fully-formed, genius, and moving work of literature I'll most likely ever read.

If I seem to be overly prosaic and prone to hyperbole about this book, (I should say books, since it's a duology, but the two volumes fit together like one work) it's just a symptom of how much it has crept into every fiber of me. I now want to write extra stories about descendants of her tales. I want to create art showing the pivotal moments in the stories that I adored.

The message of the books is both simple and incredibly complex. The tales themselves are both an intricate symphony, and a simple thread that weaves around to end at a simple resolution. Valente is the Weaver of these tales, closing her eyes, grabbing all that is around her, and remaking it into beautiful gowns, girls, and cities, knowing all the while where the tales will end, whether that end is happy or sad.
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