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The Grass-Cutting Sword cover

Two new books from Catherynne M. Valente, The Grass-Cutting Sword and The Orphan's Tales: In the Night Garden, both spin stories from the affairs of celestial beings, the first children of the Creators—gods. But these are not happy gods, ruling in bliss in the heavens; nor are they benevolent or righteous, giving laws and enforcing justice. Some are jealous, cruel, or self-destructive; others are frail victims.

The Grass-Cutting Sword, like Yume No Hon (2005), begins in mythic Japan, with the storm god Susanoo-no-Mikoto having just been forcibly ejected from heaven by his sun goddess sister. The opening is narrated by the banished god, and it is a striking scene, combining visual imagery and the thoughts of the god as he falls:

I forgave her, even as she burned against my fog-limbs, even as her ribcage irradiated me with its feathered fire, even as the salt-sea was dried from my mouth by her banishing blow.

After all, we are family, she and I.

Of course I thought of none of this then. Then, there was only the air and the light, and the fall through tiers of stars and ether, the light of her golden heels receding above me, and the earth below, green and checkered with watery rice-fields, their squares made radiant by the reflection of my descent. (p. 1)

After his fall, Susanoo finds himself on earth and "enfleshed." He marvels at his human body and is enraptured by how he sees the world through his now-human senses, delighting in the light and colors of the world around him. But his admiration is cut short by the wails of an old peasant couple, grieving for their daughter Kushinada, the last of eight daughters, all of whom have been snatched away, one after another, by an eight-headed, eight-tailed serpent. Susanoo decides to kill the monster and rescue the maiden.

But before you begin to regard this novel as a heroic story, consider the storm god's other goal: to find his mother, who died giving birth and who now lies below the ground somewhere, in the Root-Country—her body, in fact, is the Root-Country, the land of the dead, a sentient hell, the devourerer of life. Nevertheless, she is the storm god's mother, who died before he was born from his father's body, and Susanoo longs for her.

The storm god's tale is interleaved with segments told in the monster's voice—and the monster's narrative is in turn split between his voice and the voice of each of the women he has devoured, in a dialogue between eater and eaten, telling each woman's story. Thus:

It was midwinter, I think—in truth I cannot recall, but it seems to me from the vantage of these copper-blooded innards that the trees were bare and bone-rattled, that the sky was impassive and pale as a face. / It was midsummer, you silly girl, and I watched you walk out under the eaves from a bower of green, and the sun was beating my back with switches of yellow light. So much green, so many leaves, all my heads lolled out of the trees and you saw nothing but bobbing fruit.

It doesn't matter.

I wanted you then, like a husband, in your clean white wimple. (p. 27)

As, one by one, the stories of the eight daughters are told, Susanoo's voice also reaches into the past and tells the story of his father and mother, and of the birth of the world. The rhythm of the novel lies in this back-and-forth movement of alternating voices of god, monster, and peasant woman, the regular swinging of a narrative pendulum, until god and monster finally meet.

The Grass-Cutting Sword is intricately constructed and stylishly told, but bleak in its portrayal of life and love: the eight doomed daughters are nothing more than marital commodities, goods that are replaced when a predecessor is damaged (or eaten). They seem to see little difference between living their obedient lives, with the prospect of bearing children and making soup, and becoming food for a monster—the eighth daughter actually runs to the monster to escape her life. And in the scene depicting the creation of the world by the god Izanagi and the goddess Izanami, the god is shown as an abusive spouse, who reviles the submissive Izanami for speaking before he does and who mates with his wife brutishly until she dies bearing one of their offspring. Izanagi's gluttonous eating between matings with his wife seems designed to echo the monster glutting himself on living women, the imagery of eating suggesting the idea of woman as something to exploit and use up. In the other strand of narrative, the god Susanoo—no hero, he—turns his mother-longing into death-longing. As a portrait of despair, The Grass-Cutting Sword out-Lears Lear, but the hand of the author lies too heavy on the characters to allow them to carry any tragic weight.

In The Night Garden cover

In the Night Garden, by contrast, sprawls over a wider canvas. This book, part one of The Orphan's Tales (part two will follow in Fall 2007) is a collection of stories joined by a framing narrative in the manner of The Canterbury Tales or The Arabian Nights. The teller of the tales is a 13-year-old girl who lives, half-feral, in the gardens around a sultan's place. When she was a baby, her eyelids were magically inscribed with tales and spells, written so fine that she appears to be wearing black kohl around her eyes. She is feared by the other children of the palace, but one boy dares to come to her to find out more about her, and she begins to tell him the stories that are written on her skin.

In contrast to The Grass-Cutting Sword's method of alternating from god to monster and back again, Night Garden's stories are not told sequentially, but are nested, one within another, taking the reader many layers deep. The girl begins by telling a story of Prince Leander's encounter with a witch—and in the course of that story the witch tells the story of her own youth—and a character in her story, in turn, tells the story of her apprenticeship and initiation, during which she meets a wolf who tells a story about stars ...

The reader is thus guided through a wondrous land of interconnected stories, so that reading becomes an experience similar to that of a swimmer who descends from the surface of the sea to explore a drowned city, exploring the buildings and palaces within the city and then the rooms within the palaces, and, from these rooms, going through doorways that lead to still more places to be discovered. It is a little disorienting, and the reader might sometimes get lost and wonder just where this particular story is within the larger structure—but the stories and their interconnections stay surprisingly lucid, and the act of reading becomes an adventure in itself.

And while The Grass-Cutting Sword is a retelling of two Japanese myths—the creation of the world, and one of the adventures of Susanoo—the Night Garden does not retell older stories, but drops fairy tales, myths, Ovid's Metamorphoses, and maybe even Moby Dick in a blender and pushes "chop." None of the stories can be termed "retold," but readers will occasionally glimpse fragments of sources in these new stories. A creation tale quite different from that of The Grass-Cutting Sword underpins the world of Night Garden:

In the beginning ... there was nothing but sky. It was black and vast, and all the other things you might expect a sky with nothing floating around in it to be. But the sky was only a sky if you looked at it slantwise—if you looked at it straight, which of course, no one could, because there wasn't anyone to look any way, it was the long, slippery flank of a Mare.

The Mare was black, and vast, and all the other things you would expect a horse the size of everything to be.

After a long while, the Mare chewed a hole in herself, for reasons she has kept as her own. The hole filled up with light the way a hole in you or me would fill up with blood, and this was called a Star. (p. 23-24)

After making stars, the Mare gives birth to the world. Of a multitude of stars, which take all shapes—people, animals, and inanimate objects—some remain in heaven and some descend to earth to live. Stars in the shape of people, although outwardly indistinguishable from people, contain light within them—and this light, when it is spilled into humans and mixed with their blood, is magic.

It is this star-magic that drives many of the stories in Night Garden. Wizards desire it, initiates acquire it, and possessors use it to metamorphose humans into animals. But other kinds of tales are scattered along the way: of a delightfully priggish Marsh King in the shape of a heron, of an astrologer-bear who takes on an ill-advised quest, of a prince who falls into peril when he inadvertently kills a witch's daughter, and more.

As with The Grass-Cutting Sword, the prose is poetic, highly figurative, and full of imagery and appeals to the senses. At times, it is almost too full—it seems that Valente would rather clothe a sentence in a less-than-apt simile than send it naked into the world. "His green eyes seemed to wriggle into me like twin serpents seeking out their mother's cool skin" might strain a reader's sympathy. But very often Valente achieves lyrical and unusual expressions: "death common as coats hung up in a hall" satisfies by being fresh and by having a rightness to it.

Of all the wondrous creatures inhabiting the pages of this novel, one of the best (it is my favorite, at least) is possibly the most vulgar. Two men enter a tavern, carrying a large, sloshing, wooden tub up to the bar:

In the tub was a woman with green gills opening at her throat, an inferno of green hair blazing around her head, and skin that held the sickly pallor of a fish. Her meaty hands were webbed as a frog's, her ears long and thin, like tiny fins. She was naked, and her ample breasts sagged heavily, tipped in blue nipples. From the waist down, her legs merged into a long, corpulent tail, silver violet, with translucent tendrils flapping where her feet might have been. She took great pleasure in thrashing the tail about, spraying other patrons with water [...]

"Oy! Eyvind!" the Magyr hollered, her voice like a wave sluicing through a tide pool cluttered with clapping mussels. "Fill my gullet with ale and my men's bellies with some of that foul bread you cook up in your back room! Have I got a story for you! You'll never believe it, not in a month of miracles!" (p. 433-435)

Perhaps, in comparing In The Night Garden to its literary forebears, Valente's collection of tales could use more vulgarity and humor. There is an abundance of suffering, bloodletting, and mutilation weighing down the scales on the other side; a better balance would be welcome. We do, after all, seem to relish the tales of the Miller and the Wife of Bath more than we do that of the Knight. Brutal kings and scheming wizards are stock characters in contemporary fantasy that have become over-familiar; to my mind, at least, the lighter tales are fresher and more entertaining.

It is the playful approach to words and language that stands out in both works and gives them life; Valente is an artist who takes technique seriously and who understands, deep down, that stories are made of words. Consider the twisting, labyrinthine dialogue between monster and prey in The Grass-Cutting Sword, and how the words help create an image of the inside of the monster, which itself is a smaller version of the Root-Country. Consider the diving, swooping motion of the various stories in Night Garden as the reader is led from one story to the next and the next, and then brought back, only to be swept off on another giddy flight. Scheherazade has learned a few new tricks.

Donna Royston was first published at age five. It was a poem titled "My Grandmother's Cats." Now she writes stories about Genghis Khan and sentient rocks.

Donna Royston ( lives and writes in Virginia. Her short story "The First Censor's Statement" is online at The Copperfield Review.
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