The Orphan's Tales: In the Cities of Coin and Spice
by Catherynne Valente
Cover Artist: Michael Kaluta (Illustrations)
Review by Colleen Cahill
Spectra Paperback ISBN/ITEM#: 9780553384048
Date: 30 October 2007 List Price $14.00 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /
When I recently got In the Cities of Coin and Spice by Catherynne M. Valente, I was ecstatic! This second book in The Orphan's Tales duology gives us more fabulous stories whose words sing and are highlighted with exquisite illustrations by Michael Kaluta. Again we return to the garden where a sultan's heir is told the tales that are written around the eyes of a little girl, stories that transport us to other worlds, both wicked and wonderful.
The gardens are in a state of turmoil as Dinarzad, daughter of the Sultan, is to be married and has demanded the ceremony take place there. But nothing can stand in the way of a good story or two and so our young heroine begins a new set of tales. The interlacing thread starts with a young man whose arm was literally converted into gold coins, ones he uses to buy freedom for himself and his friend. From here, the tales meander from one wondrous place to another, touching on faded cities where the kidnapped children dine on gems, to a race that are part human, part cow and part tree, and to a golden ball that demands a maiden's hand in marriage. The weird and fantastic tales are a sharp contrast to the wedding preparations, which seem drab and mundane in comparison. In the mix are also hints of not only how the stories came to be on the little girl's eye lids but also that these are more than mythic yarns; they have a great truth at their center.
This is not just a continuation of the stories from In the Night Garden, the first book in this set. There are similarities, as this volume is also divided in two, with "The Book of the Storm" being followed by "The Book of the Scald", but the latter has an interesting twist. Eventually the girl can no longer read the stories written around her eyes and it is up to the young boy to reveal the final tales. He tells of a caged Djinn in the waste, the fate of the tongue of a Basilisk, and a veiled woman who is owned by a leopard, and from there the stories really get fantastic. These are narratives that surprise and enchant, never leading the reader where they might expect, instead taking a fascinating journey than can be delightful, disturbing and compelling all at the same time.
Once again Valente has created a work that is intricate, subtle, fabulous and sublime. Like a gem, each piece in this work has many facets, some of which reveal clues to greater mysteries. There are strong ties between the books and you should read In the Night Garden before delving into In the Cities of Coin and Spice to get the full experience. The best advice I can give on either of these volumes is don't rush: these tales should be savored slowly for their color, richness and startling ideas.