The Folded World, the second book of Catherynne M. Valente's series A Dirge for Prester John, posits that everything in the world has a twin. This is a book haunted by duality and schism; twin is kin to twain. The severed heads of a Christian and a Muslim killed in the Crusades trade identical accusations and mutual incomprehension; a child has two mouths, one of which speaks with a bitter adult voice; royal twins are shut away from the world, unable to bear its touch—unless it's the world that can't bear them.
The Folded World is a duality itself. Should I discuss the precise, burning imagery, the light intimacy with medieval intellectual history, the creativity fecund as the soil of magical Pentexore, where beds and books and the beloved dead grow on trees? Or should I focus instead on the heavy hand with which Valente drives home her themes, the over-explanation that robs many a figure of speech of its charm, the way banality and profundity sit side by side, dressed in the same rich language?
To give a brief indication of the plot: 2010's The Habitation of the Blessed introduced Valente's twist on the medieval legend of Prester John. A hapless, obnoxious priest stumbles into a world where death is unknown. The Pentexorans have discovered an effective, albeit brutal, way to live with immortality: every hundred years, they take up new occupations and spouses by lot, never to speak of their old lives. By rigging this lottery, the Abir, John becomes king, but chance alone marries him to Hagia, wiser than he and ambivalent about her new husband.
In The Folded World, Hagia narrates how the Pentexorans, answering a call for help by John's fellow Christians during the Crusades, and utterly ignorant of what war entails, are betrayed into a bloodbath. (Appropriately enough, this tale of naive intervention and rapid disillusionment is set near Mosul, today part of Iraq.) Other narrators include a lion who is an expert in love, and another legendary traveller, John Mandeville, here the not-always-voluntary guest of a mysterious pair of twins.
But the novel's spectacular virtues and flaws lie less in the plot than in the prose. For example, an early passage on the pains and pleasures of love begins: "Love is a practice. It is a yogic stance; it is lying upon nails; it is walking over coals, or water. It comes naturally to no one" (p. 36). The startling, rhythmic second sentence reveals the complexity of the simple first, and together they emphasize the rigors of love in an unexpected way. The end of the passage shares that originality, listing "the worst of the six ails of loving, which are to find it, to break it, to outlive it, to vanish inside it, and to see it through to the end" (p. 37).
So far, so exquisite. But sandwiched between are some duds. "Love is like a tool, though it is not a tool: something strange and wonderful to use, difficult to master, and mysterious in its provenance." Generality coupled with awkwardness; who doesn't know that love is strange, wonderful, difficult, and mysterious? And having been told that love is only like a tool, we need not be warned not to mistake it for one.
This tendency to toss wisdom and solecism to the reader indiscriminately pervades the book, as does the habit of repeating and explicating a symbol until it loses its initial power. Valente uses Odysseus's rejection of Calypso as a metaphor for the human condition—and has two different characters suck the life out of the tale by explaining that it is a metaphor for the human condition.
Often the power of the image remains despite this, for Valente's ability to paint disturbing and sensual pictures, to find the bloody heart of any myth, never flags. Her take on the common motif of a unicorn hunt is harrowing. "it was not a horse at all, or even a beast, but a young man with terribly white skin, covered in soft down, glowing with a silvery countenance . . . If you take away the lie, the truth remains, and the truth is shaped like a dead boy" (pp. 156, 178). While the series celebrates fiction, legend, and even lies, it is merciless toward self-delusion and the attempt to impose a pre-existing narrative on the messy, unpredictable worlds.
Another pleasure of The Folded World is Valente's accessible way of writing about medieval intellectual culture. Any writer could reference Boethius's dialogue The Consolation of Philosophy as a bit of period detail, but Valente makes a humorous tale of its composition and its place in the history of philosophy.
See, the goddess of Philosophy has very little to do these days. Most of our best thinkers have gone over entirely to Theology, who, as a paramour, dresses less excitingly, and will contort herself into fewer positions, but has a certain respectability—you can take her home to meet your mother and no one will be accused of wasting their time laying about uselessly on couches drinking wine. Thus, Miss Philosophy found herself bored and started visiting Boethius in his cell (p. 177)
This works both for those familiar with the work, who will recognize Lady Philosophy as one of its interlocuters, and those new to it, who can enjoy the joke nonetheless and may be moved to learn more by tantalizing hints. The same deft touch is evident in her references to the real John Mandeville, the Mu'allaqat, and several Byzantine theological controversies. Valente's contagious passion for these works shines through without making the book obscure to the uninitiated.
However, Valente often explicitly points out the already obvious flaws in her characters' archaic worldviews. Anyone who still thinks that the Crusades were a bright idea is unlikely to be convinced otherwise by a novel, so it can be discussed more subtly than via didactic parables such as that of the accusing severed heads. Valente also has the Pentexoran characters comment on the to-them bizarre sexual repression of the humans, but this comes off as condescension, a reassurance that we really are superior to those confused people in the past. There's enough pain in the way some characters think of sex as a sin and a temptation, and dance obliquely around their love for one another—direct criticism is superfluous. Meanwhile the one character who had in The Habitation of the Blessed raised serious issues about the desirability of a crucial Pentexoran custom, the Abir, hardly gets a word in here. This is in most respects a slighter work than its prequel, which derived more emotional impact and intellectual complexity from a tighter and less action-packed plot.
Though The Folded World's examination of both real and invented societies is underdeveloped compared to that of the earlier volume, it does not lack for intriguing individual personalities. Whereas in The Habitation of the Blesssed, arrogant and incapable John was humanity's main representative, here we meet a number of characters who illustrate the multifarious gifts and limitations of human beings. Mandeville incarnates the storytelling impulse in all its amorality, his glib narration adding power to his moments of clear-sightedness. The confessions of Alaric, a shy monk tracking down Prester John's story in distant lands, mirror and reinforce the themes of failed cross-cultural interactions and the power of narrative in a more intimate setting. Salah ad-Din features in the role often occupied by his rival Richard Coeur de Lion, the king as knight errant. In addition of the strategic acumen and chivalry of legend, Valente's character has a meditative sense of loss that gives him a greater feel for deathless Pentexore's possibilities than blinkered John can have. But one of the book's darkest moments is a prophecy of his future success in taking Jerusalem—as well as the tangle of conflict and carnage that success will continue. While Valente's characters tend to be too consistent to be wholly believable, they are engaging in both their virtues and their flaws. The exceptions are the monks Jibril and Dawud—one is totally evil, the other wholly good, and neither is very interesting.
My final verdict on this book is twofold: The Folded World's manifold strengths make its limitations stand out more strongly. Despite its memorable imagery and ability to cut to the dark heart of the pretty stories we tell ourselves, be they fairy tales or the mistaken assumptions that lead to war, I found it a frustrating read and cannot ultimately recommend it. The Folded World is too often belabored and banal. But its best moments hauntingly evoke the pain of love and mortality, and the beautiful, impossible dream that "nothing would ever be forgotten, no, in the long life of the world" (p. 167).
Maya Chhabra is a student at Georgetown University. Her reviews have been published by Ideomancer, where she is an associate editor, and by Strange Horizons. She is a graduate of the Alpha SF/F/H Workshop for Young Writers.