The legend of Prester John is one of the first documented cases of a hoax going viral. In 1165 a letter was discovered, supposedly sent to the Byzantine Emperor from a mysterious king in the far east, telling of a Christian land filled with riches and monsters. The letter inspired stories and explorations and crusades for four centuries before everyone finally decided the whole thing had been made up.
But what if it was all real?
In The Habitation of the Blessed, Catherynne Valente tells a small part of the story of Prester John as it appears in three books plucked from a tree where they’d been growing like fruit. The viewpoints alternate from Prester John’s own tale, to his history as written by his fantastical wife many years later, to the nursery stories told to a trio of royal children long before John ever came to the country of Pentexore. And all of this is read by two humble priests who frantically try to finish transcribing the story before the books they’ve harvested can finish rotting and going to seed.
As usual, Valente has created a gorgeous, intricate, beautiful mess of a world that’s wonderfully easy to fall into. It’s a world where animals talk, birds can become famous historians, and mythological creatures like gryphons have their own social structure and religions. Even the land itself is impossibly alive; anything planted in the ground will grow into a tree that’s a living extension of whatever was planted. This can be pretty useful when planting and harvesting paper, or cloth, or bottles of wine, and it can also lead to a limited sort of immortality when planting someone instead of something (provided, of course, the tree grows into something that isn’t just a shrub of fingernails or hair.)
There’s also real immortality in this kingdom, and they’ve solved the problem of boredom from living hundreds of years with the Abir, a lottery held every three hundred years where everyone draws a new identity. Jobs, spouses, homes, everything changes; a person could be a dancer living on their own in the city, and after the Abir they could be a wealthy jewelry-maker with two husbands, one of them a minotaur and one of them a crow.
In many ways this book is a lot of work. Valente writes in a style that crosses over into poetry, and several of the chapters have a fever-dream hallucinatory quality to them. The story becomes even more disjointed when the books the stories are written in start to mold, and the priests have to skip whole sections when the writing inside is destroyed. Within the story itself you also have characters who’s ears wrap around their bodies, characters who’s hands are huge (just their hands, not the rest of their bodies), a character who’s mouth is a cauldron that he can boil things in, and oh yes, one of the three main narrators doesn’t have a head, just a mouth and eyes set in their chest. Trying to keep all of this in mind when people are having a causal conversation is pretty tough, but worth it.
It’s not a happy book, although it has some happy sections. It’s telegraphed from the very beginning, heck, from the very title, that things aren’t going to end well, and it’s going to be the title character’s fault. Of the three viewpoints, Prester John’s was my least favorite. He’s so sanctimonious and earnest, he’s found what amounts to heaven, but it isn’t the right kind of heaven, so now he’s trying to change it all to fit his ideas of what heaven should be. His priestly attitude doesn’t help, especially when he’s treating the aforementioned headless character as a kind of walking abomination simply because her face is set in her chest, so he can’t even have a polite conversation with her since that would mean looking at her breasts. He ends up finding many, many ways that everything he’s always believed is wrong, or at least only part of a much larger story, and mostly that just makes him double down on the Sunday school lessons to a very bemused congregation. Fortunately not everyone allows him to get away with his attitude; the scene with John getting verbally shredded by a lamia in front of the entire town is not to be missed. I like Griselba, she’s got sass.
The Habitation of the Blessed is up there with my favorite Valente books. Never boring, never expected, and with lots of fun parts to at least balance out a little of the impending tragedy. The second book in the series, The Folded World is almost as amazing as the first, and if I have any complaint at all it’s that Valente and her publisher went their separate ways before the third book could be released. Valente had plans to self-publish The Spindle of Necessity, at least in e-book format, but that was three years ago and still no word on when the final book in the trilogy will be released. And it really needs to happen soon, ’cause gee darn. (The last time I got crabby in a review about a delayed third book in an installment I actually got a response with some helpful information. I’m hoping the same thing happens here. Hint, hint.)