THE FOLDED WORLD – Catherynne Valente

Standard

When the mysterious daughter of Prester John appears on the doorstep of her father’s palace, she brings with her news of war in the West–the Crusades have begun, and the bodies of the faithful are washing up on the shores of Pentexore. Three narratives intertwine to tell the tale of the beginning of the end of the world: a younger, angrier Hagia, the blemmye-wife of John and Queen of Pentexore, who takes up arms with the rest of her nation to fight a war they barely understand, Vyala, a lion-philosopher entrusted with the care of the deformed and prophetic royal princess, and another John, John Mandeville, who in his many travels discovers the land of Pentexore–on the other side of the diamond wall meant to keep demons and monsters at bay.

These three voices weave a story of death, faith, beauty, and power, dancing in the margins of true history, illuminating a place that never was.

Well, damn.

It’s always more difficult to talk about a book that blows you away than about a book that’s fun to pick on, and The Folded World being exquisite, complex and ambitious is incredibly difficult to talk about without gushing.

“Now, is that true?” I said with a twinkle in my eye—I have a most effective twinkle that I can deploy at will. Ymra gave me back my twinkle trebled.

“Not really,” she said with a smile. “But the grey-eyed girl was very good at weaving.”

“To begin to tell the history of a thing is to begin to tell a lie about it,” said Ysra. “Tell us again about your adventures in Egypt?”

I quote this exchange between John Mandeville and the monarchs of Pentexore on the other side of the Wall (the true identity of which becomes fairly obvious if you recall a certain bit of Pentexoran history from The Habitation of the Blessed) because The Folded World is, like its predecessor, about storytelling. More specifically it’s about telling stories and telling truth, and recording history.

The geek’s obsession with world-building and slavish devotion to bullshit trivia are rooted in authoritarianism. Geeks fixate on little details because they want everything to be exact and to make sense: geeks hate the real world because it’s full of contradictions and uncertainties. They can’t control the real world, so they go and make up something they can control down to the last little thing. King X of Y defeated a demon in year whatever, Z Al’Turd is the indisputable Chosen One, and so on. Everything is objectively true and the author is a god yelling these truths down from on high.

While Valente probably knows what’s true and what’s not in Pentexore, the words she presents on the page offer no such certainty. The Folded World is made of numerous narrative threads all working toward the same conclusion, but each concerns itself with a specific objective and point of view–and its own version of truth. The creation of Pentexore is told and retold; history is configured and reconfigured. You are never sure which is the one you should believe, and the text doesn’t insist on any of the threads being the true one even as they work on the same events. This flexibility, more than anything, allows Valente’s creation to feel very real–and realer, by far, than secondary worlds that are not so much about art or narrative so much a Tolkienish obsession with (moral, historical) absolutes.

In short, by omitting dates, appendices, and lengthy genealogy Valente makes her world a hundred times more real than the type of fantasy made by people who spend five hundred hours drawing up maps that mean nothing and making up twenty variants of elves that are actually identical to D&D subraces.

To the book proper: as previously the frame narrative is that of scribing monks trying to make sense of the legend of Prester John and the fabled country he purported to rule. This time we have the lion Vyala, an expert on love; Hagia, scarred by war, and John Mandeville, who like Prester John wandered by accident into Pentexore–except Mandeville winds up on the other side of the wall that separates the two Pentexores: one that we’ve come to know in The Habitation of the Blessed, populated by Hagia and Vyala and the other one in which demons are trapped.

If previously the Pentexoran narrative was about idyll–a world in which nobody dies and nobody fights–this is about the breaking of that innocence as  Prester John, now their king, makes them leave Pentexore and ride to Jerusalem’s rescue. It brings Pentexore out into the fraught world of the Crusades, of religious conflict, and of course introduces Pentexorans to Christian bigotry full-on. It also resolves some of the loose ends from the first book, often with heartbreaking conclusions.

Mandeville’s thread is especially intriguing, this being the first time we’re introduced to the other side of the wall, of what’s happened there after the wall was built and the world was divided in half. Previously we were given the impression that that side is now full of monsters, but we discover through the words and perspective of (compulsive, pathologically lying) Mandeville that it’s as vibrant and populated as the other Pentexore, ruled over by the sibling monarchs Ymra and Ysra. If it’s strange, it’s no stranger than the other side. If Ysra and Ymra don’t tell Mandeville everything (and ask him increasingly troubling questions), well, they’re hardly obliged to. And if they ask him to do something terrible–if there are hints that their ultimate objective is destruction–they offer very compelling reasons to do what they want to do:

Ymra laughed like water moving. “The world was not meant to be closed up behind walls. All we want is an open world, where everything can be known and there is no such thing as the end of the world, because the world is without end. We want to see the world naked—don’t you? Haven’t you always? Haven’t you always suspected that if you could just see her as she really is, she would be so beautiful that you’d never have to tell another lie? This is it, this is your moment. Breaking out is the beginning of being alive.”

Reasons which are not necessarily contradicted by the text or authorial fiat. Reasons that sound, well, fairly reasonable actually. And after all, Ysra’s and Ymra’s subjects want to reunite with their family on the other side…

“We are all very curious,” I said, to turn the tide of our talking, “to know what an infidel is. John called us that a great deal in the old days, and there was a good deal of private debate—some said it meant a person who has four legs. Some said it meant a person who interrupts John when he is speaking. Some insisted it obviously referred to a camel. But you are an infidel, and neither four-legged, nor impolite, nor a camel. Nor very much like us.”

“He is a Muslim,” John said bluntly. “I am a Christian.”

Sukut tossed his cream-colored horns. “Easy then. Different systems of magic.”

Both Salah ad-Din and John spluttered and began to talk very quickly, over one another.

“It is by no means magic!” cried John. “I spent years instructing all of you to accept Christ and honor Him and that is what you took from it? That He is some sort of wizard?”

The green knight insisted: “There is but one God and He is not a magician, but the Creator of All and Father of Prophets!”

Valente writes the conflict between Christians and Muslims with grace, though it’s somewhat strange that there is only the one Muslim character (who is, in all fairness, sensitive, intelligent and articulate) against many Christians (most of which are violent bigots). It’s not that I object to the portrayal of Christians as violent bigots, which they were during that time period and remain to this day, but the fact that Salah ad-Din (yes, this one) is the only Muslim in the book does make him out to be something of an Exceptional Muslim while the rest remain faceless. But, then again, the Crusades are not the book’s focus.

This being a deeply nuanced book, it of course concerns itself with the relationships between women too: Hagia and Anglitora, Vyala and Sefalet, the place of women in each other’s lives and in men’s, the clash of Pentexoran egalitarianism with Christian misogyny.

I did not like the white lion then and I liked her less when I heard her cold, pale voice echoing in my own mind, unmodulated by her kinder son. She was unfeminine; her maternal nature lacked some vital component. Something wild and untempered in her turned the gentleness of a mother’s spirit into a thing cold and utterly other. […] If I am honest, Vyala’s imperious letters bring my own mother sharply to mind.

Or–

John could say what he liked. I said no before him—but no one in his world listens to a woman. Even their god did not. Who asked poor Mary if she wanted to loose a son on the world, an arrow of diamond catching fire as it flew? She said no, I’m sure of it. And yet, the future fell on her in the night all the same.

And of course this:

“Kukyk,” he whispered, and that was Anglitora’s mother’s name. I am her stepmother, but if the crane had the rearing of the child, I had the rearing of the woman. Perhaps it is truer to say that the crane-girl had two mothers and no father to speak of.

It’s no one’s fault who their father is.

I cannot say if I was hurt. I was not jealous—John had told me the tale of the crane and how he made love to her while the nation of birds fought and mated with the nation of pygmies in the valley below them. I thought it was a beautiful story, one which made sense, had a good beginning, a logical progression of events and a satisfying conclusion… I do not think I was hurt, not in the way women are hurt in John’s stories when their men mate with others. […] I think I only looked on her and envied her strength and beauty, for my own child fell into one of her convulsions even as her crane-sister set the helmet before us.

It’s this wonderful, instant empathy between women. They don’t fight over John’s love and attention, and wouldn’t even be able to conceive of why they might possibly want to. An individual man may be centered, but maleness never is. As John Mandeville notes, with some alarm, “I have only encountered female salamanders, though they assure me they have males, but apparently maleness is a thing easily misplaced, or spoiled, or forgotten.”

The prose is always beautiful and the characters speak beautifully–this is a Valente book–but more than that the research that must’ve obviously been done is astonishing. More than just being wonderfully written The Folded World is extremely literate, and more than just being literate it’s ambitious. I was surprised to see that the paperback copy is only 320 pages long, because it’s a novel that contains entire realities.

18 thoughts on “THE FOLDED WORLD – Catherynne Valente

  1. I really need to get fully on the Cathyrenne Valente fan-train, I’ve only read two of her books so far.

    Your idea of the geek obsession with world-building being rooted in insecurity about the real world is something I hadn’t considered before. That would certainly explain the simplistic “light versus darkness” morality systems at play in a lot of fantasy- moral ambiguity is hard, right?

    • And the idea that history can be objective, which of course to most geeks mean “the rational white man’s account of everything past and present is objective, accurate, and unquestionable.”

      • Hell, this reminds of a debate I’ve seen on TV* where some dumbfuck white french historian said we shouldn’t dismiss outright the colonization of Algeria as a bad thing. Oh no, the french did some good things, like building railways (for white colonists and their industries) and developing agriculture (well, stealing land actually), so we should do an objective assessment of the colonization. Yeah, that stupid piece of shit couldn’t get his head around the fact that he, as a French person, should just apologize, shut up, and let the algerian historians handle this. You see, he is a rational, unbiased man, so why doesn’t everybody agree with him already?

        *French TV, which is shit, as anyone could guess. I live in Belgium, and the TV is also horrible over here, there’s a stupid show called “All this won’t give us back Congo”. Yeah.

    • I think it stems more from a quasi-religious fixation. The big thing about fantasy novels is that the ‘fantastic’ portions in-story are one hundred percent true. Gods, demons, magic, crap like that, and as we all know, most of the major religions teach us that there is such a thing as absolute morality. Which is funny, because that means that the anarchy loving punk misfit in his leather duster preaching: “Fuck the world,” is as guilty of enforcing dogmatic beliefs with his hobby, as any stereotypical preacher braying against gay people on his bully pulpit.

      • Which is funny, because that means that the anarchy loving punk misfit in his leather duster preaching: “Fuck the world,” is as guilty of enforcing dogmatic beliefs with his hobby, as any stereotypical preacher braying against gay people on his bully pulpit.

        Only insofar as the leather duster-wearing pseudo-edgy rebel-without-cause neckbeard is probably also a racist, homophobic bigot.

  2. I feel almost a kind of rage to read this book. None of the libraries in Camden hold it and the flat is too small to keep another book. I shall get it somehow, yes….

  3. Moral absolutism is pretty much the standard in SFF (the staggering idea that there can be evil races/nations is somehow attractive to white western boys), but it’s also pretty common in small-minded historical and political thinking. “Axis of Evil” requires there to be “bad countries”; patriotism requires “them and us”; heaven and hell requires people who are all good and others who are all bad. All of these are bullshit ideas for lazy and privileged minds. It is my intention never to publish a “good vs evil” story (even colonialist narratives are stories of crimes committed rather than pure evil entities).

    As someone who, I am slightly shamed to say, has never read a Valente novel (but several stories), where would you suggest I start?

    • I was introduced to Valente through Deathless, but the Prester John series were what grabbed me hook, line and sinker. The Orphan’s Tales aren’t bad either, but they’re not my favorite out of what she’s written.

      Then there’s Six-Gun Snow White, which is due out later this year, which I am getting through hell or high water.

  4. Loved the first book. It’s a continued damned personal failure that I have not picked up the second, particularly in that it’s got a great audiobook edition as did the first book. My plea is that other good books come out (like Valente’s Fairyland books which consumed my holidays – though those Fairyland books have gotten great press and reviews (TIME’s best of 2012 in books list) and I liked them, the first Prester John book was glorious for me.)

    Apropos of nothing, I may not have heard of the first book back when it came out were it not for the “white washed cover” controversy. These books have not been heavily championed by “the critics” and the first one was one of my favorites of its year. Something got so screwed up along the line and the third book came out self published if I remember, so even less fanfare. Hm.

  5. You sure make it sound tempting, even though I wish Valente would do more sci-fi after that novella…Guess I’ll put the Prestor John stuff in the queue. Probably natural to read this after Gilman’s Rise of Ransom City.

    I think that it’s difficult to write a secondary world fantasy without some degree of moral absolutism, because it’s an important element of how the reader is urged to identify with the protagonist. When there isn’t really a side picked out, the reader has to choose what to root for, perhaps, and why. One had better be a good writer to make up for that.

    Do want to note that the just-read Raksura stuff from Martha Wells is a nice take on sword and sorcery with a good job of avoiding unnecessary norms. Male protagonist is a plucky princess figure, no fixed gender pairing for sexual dalliances, etc.

    • I can see how moral absolutes help when your protagonist follows a very basic moral code or (much more likely) your antagonist does not–so the hero doesn’t kick puppies, say, or the bad guy does kick puppies and then he rapes the very cutest one! Not the most sophisticated technique, but one that should ensure reader identification. (Note that even in grimdark novels, there’s somebody even grimdarker for our protagonist to stand out against.)

      However, setting up a system in a vacuum and expecting somebody to root for Side R’holluxaqtriq vs. Side B’stardius on your say-so is a bit much. Most fantasy worlds use convenient racial/nationalist tropes to get round this one, so a novel aimed towards a white reader gets swarthy Orcs and those “Southrons.”

  6. The worst thing about genre world-building is that a lot of authors focus on it to the exclusion of everything else.

  7. “The geek’s obsession with world-building and slavish devotion to bullshit trivia are rooted in authoritarianism. Geeks fixate on little details because they want everything to be exact and to make sense: geeks hate the real world because it’s full of contradictions and uncertainties. They can’t control the real world, so they go and make up something they can control down to the last little thing. King X of Y defeated a demon in year whatever, Z Al’Turd is the indisputable Chosen One, and so on. Everything is objectively true and the author is a god yelling these truths down from on high.”

    Very well said, and made worse when authors give you this information through infodumping. If the fantasy world is supposed to be believable, then the characters should interact with their environment like actual people do–which includes assuming a hell of a lot of knowledge (and thus not relating it in 101-speak at the first opportunity), as well as being unaware/misapprehending other things. And if that’s true today, with all the available information out there, then it would stand to reason that the average person in a medieval-ish setting wouldn’t know fuck all about King X or Y, and what most they think they know would have a high likelihood of being unreliable. But most fantasy authors are populating their books with idealized avatars of themselves (or rather, who they wish they were), and they are geeks in exactly the way you describe, so…yeah.

    The Folded World sounds like a much more complex and interesting novel. Definitely putting it on my must-read list.

  8. Dualism does seem to be something that is present among western culture.

    Aside from the already mentioned examples, there is the aging “science/rationality vs religion” being peddled by assorted westerners and their supporters+apologists. Even though things aren’t really that simple as one who looks enough into individuals like Isaac Newton, this structure is still being pushed.

  9. Okay, read the pair…high fives Inverarity for making it through these novels. Geez, it’s work for people with ADD to read these novels! Worth it though.

    1) I think people need to keep in mind Jorge Luis Borges’ Lottery of Babylon, because that seems to be a ginormous seed for the metastructure of the two novels.

    2) Salah al Din isn’t really an Exceptional Muslim, any more than Alexander was an exceptional Macedonian, and Salah’s lesser degree of schmuckhood is meant to amplify the role of chance in the novel. What if it was Salah, rather than John, that went to Pentexore? Thing is, a more accepting christian already visited.

    3) For me, personally, these novels are very much anti-Lev Grossman’s The Magicians, about as anti as Kiernan’s Daughter of Hounds is to Rowling’s Harry Potter.

    I really, really, really, anticipate the day Valente does some real science fiction work, and maybe drift from all those derivations of the classics.

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