Silently and Very Fast is a brief little novella - 22,000-odd words - and it has many of Valente's hallmarks in: a concern for storytelling and mythology (it opens with the myth of Inanna, and is shot through with fairy-tales, folk tales, and other mythologies, as well as the Oedipal monomyth); beautiful, intelligent, complex language; emergent narrative, which comes together only over time, with things revealed slowly but surely; and characterisation that is vivid and powerful.

Silently and Very Fast feels, in many ways, like an offspring from the same tree as Ted Chiang's Lifecycle of Software Objects, but with an awareness of that Oedipal monomyth, developed from R.U.R. through Terminator, into The Matrix and the (appalling, unAsimovian) film I, Robot which has so permeated our cultural understanding of A.I.  There isn't a plot to the novella as such, because what we instead have is a character portrait, of Elefsis, an autobiography in fact.  Told through a combination of mythology - "Tell me a story about yourself, Elefsis" - and recollection, gradually this novella builds up a portrait of who Elefsis is, how she became who she is, how she thinks and feels.  That picture is a powerful and effective one in part because it is told in a circumlocutory manner, without focussing in hard and fast on Elefsis whilst never ever losing sight of her; it's also powerful and effective because, quite consciously, Valente uses imagery in Silently and Very Fast that is directly drawn from Grimm, and therefore our own cultural memories. The way this story is told, therefore, draws on a lot of cultural assumptions, but in such a way as to build up a matrix of reality; Elefsis isn't a character in a monolithic way, any more than Neva, the other main figure in the novella, is, but rather as a matrix of facets and elements, drawn together by the concept of "I".

One of the most winning elements of Silently and Very Fast is the writing style.  Valente isn't afraid of big words, of complex ideas, or of lyricism; and indeed, all of these play a role in creating the developing (maturing?) character of Elefsis, as well as in building up our own vocabulary of story and of this story.  The direct and clear imagery layers over subtler imagery, and there are layers and layers of meaning in much of what Valente says; there is also simple clarity and beautiful style, and factual statements.  The simple joy taken in language, at times, is in its own way telling of the character of Elefsis, whilst the powerful and evocative imagery of the novel, drawing from so many cultural roots, is deployed very effectively in the service of story and idea.  Because this is a deeply idea-driven novella, in the way the best science fiction is; beautiful writing, and effective characterisation, and thoughtfulness, would add up to a pretty little piece of art without what Valente presumably started with here.  And that is the idea, and to quote Stephen Baxter, "ideas [are] the whole point"; certainly, the idea - or rather ideas - at the heart of this novella are powerful, and without them as a structure and core, I'm not sure it would work as well; but, because of their slow development and the way they're revealed and explored over the course of the story, and the nature of that revelation is rather important to our response, I won't spoil them for you.

Catherynne M. Valente has been an author with whose work I have, in the past, had a slightly mixed relationship. Once again, however, as with Prester John, Silently and Very Fast has very much brought me on board, with interest; and, given that it is available for free through Clarkesworld (that takes you direct to Part One), there is no reason for you not to try out this wonderful novella, and experience Valente's brilliant, complex writing first hand.
The Folded World is the second novel of the Dirge for Prester John, a mosaic series which started with The Habitation of the Blessed.  Valente's work in the Dirge... is informed by her degree in Classics; however, The Folded World also looks beyond this - as well as Prester John and Alaric of Rouen (the latter of whom has replaced Hiob as our intersectional scribe of the Confessions), John of Mandeville makes an appearance as an author of a quarter of our mosaic.  Valente's passion for expanding the world comes through in each section, with powerful characters and wonderful events brought together incredibly.

This review contains spoilers! )Once again, I would heartily recommend The Dirge for Prester John - though better to start with The Habitation of the Blessed, The Folded World continues the series in the same excellent vein.
The Habitation of the Blessed is a sort of historical fantasy, and at the same time a straight fantasy, and at the same time a riff on history.  As a "lapsed Classicist", it is clear where the attention to stylistic detail and use of historical events stem from; and Valente's other fictional output demonstrates the concern for, and interest in, fable and fairy tale that acts as the other major thread throughout this novel, with great intersectionality between them.

There are four chief characters of the novel, each of them a writer and storyteller. Hiob, a monk searching for the land of Prester John, is an old man, and defined by his faith in God, as well as his thirst for knowledge.  Portrayed sympathetically, although not without problems - Valente's presentation of faith and the faithful is not entirely informed by lived experience (convictions shift and hypocrisy is a theme throughout, for both Hiob and John) - Hiob is witty and readable, as well as being an interesting guide to what is happening.  Prester John himself is a priggish, stubborn priest, devout and yet odd; the characterisation here shows some of the same problems as with Hiob's, with the issue of faith, being so central to John's character, coming out even more strongly as the faith is foregrounded.  The other problem is that he is so unrooted; despite at times being deeply rooted in Byzantine concerns, he seems simultaneously to be apart from and looking down on those self-same concerns, making him a character without a culture.

The other two characters are both Pentexorians, and more different than the priestly characters are from each other.  Hagia is largely a character to provide an alternative, non-Christian perspective on John to his own, and this is a slightly problematic enterprise, insofar as it makes a female character subservient narratively to him whilst making the claim not to; Imtithal, however, is a beautiful, powerful character, strong and well-written, strange and odd yet tender and sweet.  A tale-crafter herself, this perhaps influences the degree to which her character is rounded out, since she seems in many ways to be similar to Valente herself (with the maternal love and universalised love turned up to 11); and she is perhaps the strongest character here.

The plots are intertwined by the nature of the telling, and all are equally well-written.  There's not a word wasted and the linkage between each, subtle and obvious by turns, is brilliantly conveyed; the fact that we know the end of each of the tales is nodded towards and referred to with varying degrees of subtlety and interest, but it doesn't take away the compulsion to read the book because the real hero is not a character or even a plot point, but the writing style.  Valente's style changes with each character but retains a certain lyricism and whimsy to it in each transition, a sense of powerful fun but also powerful seriousness and emotion, that charges the reader to take the book seriously whilst also drawing the reader on to follow the sentences into paragraphs into a novel.

The whole thing comes together well, but individual elements do suffer; whilst I greatly enjoyed The Habitation of the Blessed, and it has made me wonder about Valente's other work (something Palimpsest near-decisively put me off), it is not a flawless novel, by any stretch of the imagination...

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February 2012

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