Paul's Reviews > The Habitation of the Blessed

The Habitation of the Blessed by Catherynne M. Valente
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Oct 30, 2011

it was ok
bookshelves: e-book, fantasy

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 century America.

The Habitation of the Blessed is a fantasy based on the Prester John myth. Told by a 17th century monk in a series of letters sent back to his monastery in Switzerland, quoting extensively from texts found growing on a magical tree, it is the tale of the kingdom of Prester John, as inaccessible or lost as Atlantis. Populated by people with faces on their chests, people with giant hands or ears, pygmies who mate with human-sized cranes, people with the heads of swans (descendents of Leda), and talking tigers and lions, is it a remarkable place -- I would say a fabulous place, but I don't think most people use the word fabulous in its old sense, a place where fables are true. In this land, people drink from the literal Fountain of Youth and stay 30 years old forever. In this land, sand and rock flow like water. In this land, people switch roles, husbands, wives, and children every three centuries, just to stir things up.

And so on. Pure fantasy rather leaves me cold, so I was not terribly interested in sticking around to see what happened ... by the book's halfway point I didn't sense any sort of human crisis in the making, or even much of a story, nothing to really hold my interest beyond the retelling of essentially meaningless fables. But the real problem for me was Catherynne Valente's characters, who all think and talk the same. Valente's fantasy fable reminds me of a medieval bestiary, where elephants, lions, and griffons look like horses or dogs because those were the only animals the artist had actually ever seen. Same thing here: the monk, Prester John, his wife, the long-eared sprite who raises a queen's giant-handed children ... they all sound alike.

Catherynne Valente has a great idea, and I loved learning more about the Prester John legend and the strength of its hold the human mind from the times of the Crusades right up to modern times, but the story needs a teller who can make it live.
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message 1: by Lea (new) - added it

Lea That's disappointing -- I was hoping these books would be better. I'll still probably give them a try, but I'm not in a rush to pick them up now.


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