The Bread We Eat in Dreams
by Catherynne M. Valente
Cover Artist: Kathleen Jennings
Review by Benjamin Wald
Subterranean Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 9781596065826
Date: 31 December 2013 List Price $40.00 Amazon US / Amazon UK
Cathrynne M. Valente's latest collection of short stories, The Bread We Eat in Dreams, showcases her lyrical, poetic writing to excellent effect, not least in the actual poems scattered amongst the prose stories in this collection. Valente's writing evokes the dreamlike cadences of fairy tales, but while some of the stories are thematically based on fairy tales, others apply this same aesthetic to stories about future dystopias and the emergence of sentient computer programs. Valente is an incredible author, and this collection shows off her versatility and her talent.
The collection begins with a series of stories that explicitly draw on myth and fairy tales, but always updated with Valente's keen eye to what has been excluded or only implied in traditional stories. Thus, the title story deals with the story of a demon exiled from hell and living in a small New England town, but tells it with the demon as the protagonist. "The Red Girl" is both a reexamination of Little Red Riding Hood's agency as a character, and a musing on the relation between the stories of our lives and who we are.
The stories draw on the mythic traditions of many cultures. "One Breath, One Stroke" is clearly Japanese inspired, while "White Lines on a Green Field" features a trickster Coyote inspired by a variety of Native American myths, alongside the Greek mythology of "How to Raise a Minotaur".
Valente has a talent for writing dystopias. "Fade to White" is a terrifyingly plausible tale of an America locked into an attempt to preserve a fašade of 1950s society by nuclear war, where women are valued only as mothers, and men are ranked according to sperm count, with those too irradiated to reproduce quietly shuffled off to the front line to die for their country, along with minorities and other undesirables. "Aeromaus" is a dreamlike tale of a flying city ruled by strange creatures, who warp reality and language itself to cement their hold on the city. Both are fascinating and entirely original.
Throughout this collection, Valente demonstrates that no idea, no matter how often used, cannot be made to feel brand new. "In the Future When All's Well" must be the most original vampire story written in the last ten years. The protagonist is a young girl at high risk for vampirism. In this story, vampires are neither monsters nor suave lords of the night. Becoming a vampire is just something that happens to you sometimes, changing your life but not necessarily for the better or worse. "Silently and Very Fast" takes on the age old SF trope of machines becoming intelligent, but tells the story from the point of the machine, capturing the perfect balance between humanness and foreignness.
I cannot recommend this collection highly enough. Valente has one of the most beautiful prose styles of any fantasy author writing today, and she combines this with a deep insight into human nature and the lives of those too often marginalized and excluded by the stories that we, as a society, choose to tell. Valente's stories are a magnificent corrective to this marginalization.