Alytha's Reviews > The Folded World

The Folded World by Catherynne M. Valente
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's review
Jan 08, 2012

really liked it
Read in December, 2011

Also finished The Folded World, the second volume of A Dirge for Prester John, by Catherynne M Valente.
For the background, see my post about the first book.
Extracts of the second book here.

The following contains spoilers for vol.1 and a vague plot summary for vol.2.

At the end of the first book, brother Hiob ate one of the books he was transcribing (or several, it's been a while and I can't find the book right now...), and a plant started growing out of his mouth, and he's unconscious. Thus, brother Alaric takes over as the narrator of the frame story. Again, he is invited to pick 3 books from the tree. In order to be more efficient, he recruits the other two brothers, Reinolt and Goswin, to help with the transcription.

The books he picked are:

The Book of the Ruby:
An account by a younger Hagia of Prester John's campaign to recapture Jerusalem from the Muslims, after he's seen the city burning in the magic mirror in front of his palace. The army is led by Anglitora, his daughter by one of the cranes he met when he arrived in Pentexore. (She's mostly human, except for a crane-wing in place of one arm).

The Left-Hand Mouth, the Right-Hand Eye:
Narrated by the white lion Vyala, the mother of Hagia's friend Hadulph, this is the story of Hagia's daughter Sefalet, who, being the daughter of a human and a blemmye, ended up having a featureless head, but eyes and mouths on her hands. The right mouth is normal enough, but the left-hand one is rather nasty and seems to be possessed somehow.

The Virtue Of Things Is In the Midst Of Them:
The account of the traveller and self-proclaimed liar John Mandeville, who travelled to Pentexore, but ended up beyond the Wall, where he met the Hexakyk (6-armed people) Ysra and Ymra, the King and Queen of that part of Pentexore. He writes a kind of encyclopedia of the things and creatures he encounters, and swears that he's not lying this time, as the truth is interesting enough.

In between those chapters, there are the Confessions of Alaric, the frame story, as well as some more extracts of the letter that Prester John sent westwards.

Spoilery review from here!

This volume is just as good as the previous one, although it's much too short. I hope the third one comes soon. The story with the most emotional impact for me is the Book of the Ruby, as it shows how innocent the inhabitants of Pentexore are, despite, or perhaps because of their immortality. They are used to living forever, and war is only a kind of very intense foreplay. The thought of somebody dying and not growing a tree through which he or she will live on and still be with their loved ones is inconceivable to them. Thus, when they go west to deliver Jerusalem, they depart as if for a fun adventure, with their bright banners and their best clothes. Their loss of innocence is heartbreaking. The worst thing is that they don't even get attacked by their perceived enemies, the Muslims. They meet Salah Ad-Din, (mostly known as Saladin over here), and find him to be a very nice, civilised and cultured young man, who has a lot in common with John. Tragically, they are attacked by John's former brothers of a Nestorian convent, who now see him as the infidel and alien, and think that his weird army is demonic. While the ensuing slaughter in the dark means the fall from innocence for the Pentexorians, it also marks the breakdown of John's world and faith. He came to deliver his home, but is attacked by the people he trusted most, and now feels at home neither in the human world nor in Pentexore.

The story about Hagia's daughter Sefalet is also pretty striking. She's an extremely lonely little girl, left behind as her parents go to war, and the only one of her kind in the universe. And possessed by the Fates, which doesn't help her attempts to be loved by others, as her left mouth constantly spouts doomy prophecies that she can't do anything about.
John had declared that in his absence, those left behind at home should construct a cathedral out of the ruins of the Tower of Babel. On that site, they find a tree grown out of the first love-making of Hagia and John, which is pretty much the first creature to be nice to poor Sefalet, so that she clings to it, and refuses to eat or talk to anybody. While the tree is nice, this story shows that the eternal life of the people of Pentexore is not all positive, as fragments of them get trapped in trees of stones, and are doomed to repeat the same actions over and over again, in a semblance of life. Maybe a clear-cut end would be preferable sometimes.

Fortunately, John Mandeville's account is a bit more light-hearted and prevents the book from becoming too gloomy, although all is not love in happiness for him either. Poor unicorn...

I really loved this book. The only flaws it has are being too short, and not containing a summary of what happened before, because I got a bit confused sometimes. As usual, Valente's prose is a feast for all the senses, and the plots are solid and extremely creative. Very recommended.


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