The Habitation of the Blessed
By Catherynne M. Valente, Read by Ralph Lister
11 hours 10 minutes [UNABRIDGED]
Publisher: Brilliance Audio
Published: November 2010
Themes: / Fantasy / Creatures / Monks / Quest / Immortality /
Publisher description: This is the story of a place that never was: the kingdom of Prester John, the utopia described by an anonymous, twelfth-century document which captured the imagination of the medieval world and drove hundreds of lost souls to seek out its secrets, inspiring explorers, missionaries, and kings for centuries. But what if it were all true? What if there was such a place, and a poor, broken priest once stumbled past its borders, discovering, not a Christian paradise, but a country where everything is possible, immortality is easily had, and the Western world is nothing but a dim and distant dream? Brother Hiob of Luzerne, on missionary work in the Himalayan wilderness on the eve of the eighteenth century, discovers a village guarding a miraculous tree whose branches sprout books instead of fruit. These strange books chronicle the history of the kingdom of Prester John, and Hiob becomes obsessed with the tales they tell. The Habitation of the Blessed recounts the fragmented narratives found within these living volumes, revealing the life of a priest named John, and his rise to power in this country of impossible richness. John’s tale weaves together with the confessions of his wife Hagia, a blemmye — a headless creature who carried her face on her chest — as well as the tender, jeweled nursery stories of Imtithal, nanny to the royal family.
Full disclosure – I am an unrestrained, shameless fan of Catherynne M. Valente. She ranks among my top three favorite authors, Palimpsest being my favorite novel, and I have read practically everything she has written. The only exceptions are Labyrinth, her first novel which she has made available for free online, Deathless, and some of her short stories. Valente’s prose is beautiful, and her knowledge of mythology and the classics is apparent in every story. Some of her earlier works read more like poetry.
The Habitation of the Blessed is the first book in a trilogy called Dirge for Prester John. The next book will be out before the end of the year, and the third is set to be published in 2012. It is based on the medieval legend of Prester John, and Catherynne Valente has created a website called PresterJohnOnline where you can read more. Check out this video demonstrating the medieval legend as acted out by action figures (also created by Valente).
Of all of Valente’s works, this reminds me of The Orphan’s Tales, the way there are multiple stories that are loosely connected in an overarching narrative. But somehow, it is much more intricate, and I was drawn in by this tree of books that is encountered early on by Brother Hiob of Lucerne. The interweaving stories in the book come from this tree, but they may act more like fruit than paper.
“This tree bore neither apples nor plums, but books, where fruit should sprout. The bark of its great trunk shone the color of parchment; its leaves a glossy vibrant red, as if it had drunk up all the colors of the long plain through its roots. In clusters and alone, books of all shapes hung among the pointed leaves, their covers obscenely bright and shining, swollen as peaches, gold and green, and cerulean, their pages thick as though with juice, their silver ribbon marks fluttering in the spiced wind.”
My imagination was captured in that moment, and it only got better. The creatures in this book are bizarre and enchanting, and stretch the limitations of the reader alongside Brother Hiob. It is impossible not to start longing for the imaginary landscape of Pentexore, and I look forward to the future books in this world.
Ralph Lister also does a wonderful job with the audio, and the subtle differences in voices help the listener know where one is within the story.
Posted by Jenny Colvin