The Habitation of the Blessed: A Dirge for Prester John
Catherynne M. Valente
A land where anything that’s planted will grow into a tree from books to beds to people makes for a fantastical place to set a story, but Valente, once again, does it effortlessly. The prose is florid, as usual, but it’s the place and people that make this story so incredible, in the true meaning of the word. There are four stories within this book and each of them is enticing in its own right. The confessions of Hiob Von Luzern were entrancing for me. I’ve long thought that if I lived in the medieval period, ideally, I would have been a scribe. Hiob’s tale of ecstatically transcribing Prester John’s, Hagia’s, and Imtithal’s books was simultaneously homey and fascinating to me. Though the tales of Prester John and Imtithal start a little slow, good lord, do they build to something that will take your breath away, particularly if you have any interest in the medieval period. Hagia’s story is compelling from the start. For any bibliophile, to be the keeper of a parchment orchard is to exist in heaven. If you used to dream of knights in shining armor or read of King Arthur then this is the tale for you.
Prester John set out to find the tomb of Saint Thomas. What he found was a land that can only be found be sailing on a sea of sand, which is only navigable four days out of every year. The last Man to have found this land is known by the land’s people as Alesaunder the Great. Yeah, that Alexander. Prester John stumbles onto shore (or rather the only piece of solid sand) starving and sunburned. Sand has scoured his very soul until he can do no more than merely stagger in the vague direction of forward. The people and places Prester John will meet will challenge everything he knows of the world. The question is: will Prester John be changed or will the mythical land of Pentexore.
I would like to throw out the disclaimer that I’m not particularly religious, but when speaking of the medieval period, it’s really impossible not to bring religion into it, particularly Christianity. This book is steeped in it, but not in a way that is galling or onerous. Yes, it’s troubling that a man can’t see a fantastical world beyond his religion, but in the context of the historical period it isn’t surprising. This is a period when the only people who were universally literate were men in religious orders and nobility. When literally everyone believed in God, when witches were burned at the stakes and an accusation of heresy was a serious charge. That being said, Valente presents this world in Technicolor, with artichoke vendors at the market and the bright blue and copper domes of Constantinople shining in the world of Man. In my mind, I tend to see this world in the dim light of candle light and gray cloudiness of peasants. Valente instead makes it seem like a real world and she does the same for the world of Pentexore. This world she paints in a riot of color and it’s the kind of beauty that you only ever see in dreams. The most endearing part of Valente’s books is that she takes a normal person and puts them in these places. If only we should all be so lucky.
It’s difficult to pick my favorite part of the story. It’s Hagia I identify with the easiest. However, I would give so much to be able to sit with Imtithal and listen to her stories. Hagia felt familiar in a way that is rare to find in stories. Sure, there’s usually one person to invest in, but I did more than just invest in Hagia, I saw aspects of myself. I want to expand on this, but I fear you all will think it boring, plus, I’m pretty sure it’ll turn into a tirade of the beauty myth and this is a place for books. So, I’ll just say this, if you are a woman who loves books to the point where you always need to have one with you, you will likely identify with Hagia. If you are a woman whose body type is even remotely different from the traditional beauty standard, then you will likely identify with Hagia.
In the end, this story is exactly what I wanted it to be and so much more. It is a tale of fantasy wound within a tale of history wound within a tale of storytelling and love. 4 ink bottles.