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In The Cities of Coin And Spice: The Beauty of Storytelling
A few months ago, I reviewed a book with the title of "The Orphan's Tales: In The Night Garden," wherein a young girl told an intricate web of stories within stories to the son of a sultan. It was fascinating, riveting, and captivating, a torrent of story that swept me away with the sheer power of the writing of its author, Catherynne M. Valente.
I loved it when I read it, and I had to read its sequel, "The Orphan's Tales: In the Cities of Coin and Spice." Although certain other books came up before I could finish it, I kept going, intoxicated once again by the power of Valente's writing. I was not disappointed.
This book continues a short while after the last one ended. The boy's elder sister, Dinarzad, is about to be wed to a far-off prince, and the preparations for the wedding are taking over the gardens. Despite this, the boy manages to track down the girl for her to continue her stories, and for him to tell her a few of the stories written on her eyelids that she could not read.
The stories here seem somewhat sadder and more full of melancholy than in the previous volume. Not that "In the Night Garden" was a bundle of laughs (a story about a prince avenging his mother by killing his father is pretty heavy), but this book is definitely a story of endings. The two cities mentioned in the title, Shadukiam and Ajanabh, are places visited in their height by characters in the previous volume, here revisited as cities that are dying or dead.
And yet, there is hope amidst the sadness of endings. Two children escape from the hellhole that was once Shadukiam and is now known as Marrow, and forge a bond that transcends the world of the living even into the land of the dead. As Ajanabh lies dying its remaining citizens celebrate, giving it the wake it truly deserves. And there are other such examples in this book, the greatest being the central relationship between the son of the sultan and the mysterious girl who lives in the gardens of the palace. As the story draws to a close, these two, who consider themselves to be alone in the world, discover that not only do they have each other, but others undreamed of who care for them. All of this builds up to one of the most heart-shatteringly beautiful endings I have ever read, an ending that, once I read it, caused me to sit in shock for a few minutes before I could even put the book down.
As you can probably gather, I loved this book as much or even more than its predecessor. Valente is a wizard with words, drawing the reader deeper and deeper with the richness of her prose. As before, characters from previous story-strands reappear in different contexts, either to give closure to their character arcs or to fulfill an entirely different role within the story.
As before, the only major downside is that the interlocking story structure is immensely complex, and tiny details mentioned in passing can have enormous consequences far down the line. If you're like me, you may have to backtrack in order to get the story completely straight.
If you can get over that hurdle, and have read the previous book, this one is a masterpiece. If you love stories about stories, this is one of the most magical examples I have ever encountered.