Tuesday, December 28, 2010
The Habitation of the Blessed Volume 1
This is Travels Through Iest's first ever guest review. I'll explain how this came about. I was really looking forward to Cat Valente's The Habitation of the Blessed. I first heard about it at Aussiecon and then I read the author's Hugo nominated Palimpsest which made me even keener, however I only ever saw one copy of it on the shelves here, and it was gone the next time I visited the shop. It was also going to increase the ever growing TBR pile, and who knew when I'd get around to reading it? By chance an eloquent, well read friend of mine on a message forum mentioned that she had a copy of The Habitation of the Blessed, which she was about to read. She graciously accepted my invitation to write a review and allow me to post it here.
This is how Mylene saw The Habitation of the Blessed by Catherine M. Valente:
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 pages have been ripped out of another spine (or are they on the verge of decaying? Read on to understand the origin of this question) – and the ink does not smear. Night Shade Books put some effort into the appearance, which is pleasing to the eyes and fingers of the reader from the first touch.
When I started to read, I needed more than 2 hours for the first 30 pages and suddenly became aware, that I was not enjoying this: I kept looking for hidden meanings, foreshadowings, prohecies, intrigue and it then became clear to me, that I have been doing this all wrong. So back to page 1 – reboot – and just relax, let Mrs Valente (yes, she’s married now) take the lead and just enjoy the ride she’s about to take you on.
And what a ride it was.
The Habitation of the Blessed describes the end of Hiob’s journey, sent out by his church to follow the Indus to it’s source, bringing back news of riches for the church to exploit, preferably the hidden kingdom of Prester John – and while at it, do some missionary work – in the form of Hiob’s written confession, dated 1699.
In a village in the province of Lavapuri, Hiob’s dwindling party finds the first word to their goal. A woman takes Hiob to a tree on which grow books. He is allowed to pick three. He spends the following day(s) and night(s) reading them in turn, translating and transcribing them. Soon he learns, that the books are decaying rapidly, like fruit – which leads him into a reading frenzy.
The first book contains the story of John, the last letter of who in 1165 details his 'kingdom‘, thusly leading to Hiob’s expedition; chronicled by his wife Hagia, a blemmye (a people that have their faces on their chests).
The second book tells Hagia’s own story.
The third covers the tale of Imthithal, a Panoti (a people with very large, white ears), nurse to the royal children.
All three interweave in the history of John reaching Pentexore after having crossed a sea of sand, the Rimal in a powerful prose – every word just so – spilling out an overflow of imagination that borders on madness, sweeping you along to the point where you start eating that damn Mango you had lying around for a couple of days, only to realise that the smell that has been disturbing you for a while wasn’t from your fruit – it was her’s, the written ones, slowly decaying.
The beauty of Mrs Valente’s writing defies being put in words. Strand for delicate strand she unravels belief, religion and the benefits of life eternal in slow, moving sentences – almost poetry. Here’s an artist, the likes of which we are not going to see anytime soon again.
This volume ends with all three of the books already rotten to mush. It leaves you wanting more, and soon. According to Mrs Valente, her husband checked her into a hotel somewhere in the wilderness of Maine, so she was closeted to wrestle this beast down. He might have to do so again – well, I certainly wish both of them all the best – but if it takes a little isolation for Mrs Valente, so I can lay may hands on the next volume – I’m not going to stop her husband.