The Folded World: A Dirge for Prester John
Catherynne M. Valente
Allow me to preface with something. I read Volume One and Volume Two back to back and it consumed me. I moved from place to place putting down the book, only to immediately pick it back up as soon as possible. Sitting here, having finished Volume Two, I feel like I’m floating in the Great Void, bumping up against the spheres of the world, still just trying to stay in the universe that Valente built.
That having been said, this story is magic, but not magic in the clinical sense spoken between adults who don’t believe any more. This story is the word whispered between two small children who believe with all their little hearts. It’s myth and history and imagination swirling together into a riotous storm of color and fantasy. Valente has once again woven a tale of such rich depth that you’ll want to put it on and wear it to the next ball.
We return to find Alaric tending to the tree growing out of the narrator of Volume One, Hiob. Alaric is determined to continue Hiob’s work and so, selects three more books from the tree. In these books, we find that our story continues, but we get to look at it through new eyes. The first perspective is that of a younger Hagia and her step-daughter Anglitora. The second is the mother of Hadulph, Vyala, as she cares for John and Hagia’s daughter. The third is through John Mandeville, an Englishman who sails to Pentexore.
Once again, Valente crafts the story in such detail that you don’t realize where it’s going until it’s already there. I had only one moment of foresight. The thing is, I’m pretty sure I can’t claim that moment. I don’t think I would have had it if she hadn’t given it to me. Valente’s prose swirls and sweeps in such a way that it requires effort to sit up and look around to see where the story might be taking you and if there are any sharp rocks ahead. The story is so buoyant that it’s just easier to lay back and float along, allowing the current to take you where it may.
I particularly love the way Valente ties medieval histories into her fantastical works. I sometimes think that I’m the only person who periodically ruminates on Eleanor of Aquitaine, but then Valente throws a gentlemanly Saladin into the story and I feel a strange sense of community. (I know most of you guys will roll your eyes at this part, but it’ll be short so keep your pants on.) There are names and times that spiral through a life. The Crusades have always held a certain interest for me. Men standing up out of their lives and traveling across thousands of miles (which is saying something in the early 12th century); all so they can go conquer a city that is holy to them has always fascinated me. It wasn’t an easy thing to go do at the time. Saladin has always held my imagination and the way Valente presents him in this book is very similar to the way I’ve always imagined him to be. It made the book that much more magical to me.
In the end, this is a story you can steep yourself in. You can open the first page and the rest of your life will disappear until the final page is turned and even then, it mostly just left me wanting the final book in the trilogy to be here today (which is admittedly asking a lot of Valente given the fact that she’s released a little under a half a million words this year). 4 ink bottles.