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The Habitation of the Blessed
The Habitation of the Blessed
Author: Catherynne M. Valente
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 t...  more »
ISBN-13: 9781597801997
ISBN-10: 1597801992
Publication Date: 11/1/2010
Pages: 352
  • Currently 4.3/5 Stars.

4.3 stars, based on 9 ratings
Publisher: Night Shade Books
Book Type: Paperback
Members Wishing: 0
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reviewed The Habitation of the Blessed on + 185 more book reviews
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I do not know where to start in talking about this book.

I suppose I should start with the fact that I choked up in every single on of Hagia's sections, and half of Imtithal's. This is partly because I am a sap, but mostly because this book (and this trilogy, given the foreshadowing) is about a fall from paradise, about the elves going off to the Grey Havens, about the horrible inevitableness of the change you don't see coming. And that atmosphere hangs over every passage of those two narratives, infusing them with an exquisite sense of loss.

Three narratives, actually, because Hiob's framing narrative is also imbued with that grief, though at a remove.

There are four narratives, by the way -- the three previously mentioned and that of John the Priest. That complexity of structure is typical of Valente's novels (at least the four I have now read); she weaves together disparate narratives better than any author I have ever read, ignoring linearity in favor of thematic resonance. So Hiob says "I have boys to scribed for me now -- for I have often and in secret thought that it is boys' work, to copy and not to compose, to parrot, and not to proclaim" and four pages later Hagia writes "I have been all my life a scribe. . . But in the end. . . I attempt, with clumsy but earnest need, to compose and not to copy. . ." Characters echo one anothers' thoughts without knowing, and their actions are mirrored or reversed to throw light on the sorts of people they are.

This is the sort of book that rewards careful reading, and punishes any lack of attention or attempt to skim.

John's narrative, at first, does not seem to fit with the other three. It is the most chronological, mostly confining itself to whatever events it is relating rather than musing on what came later (though John does do a little of this sort of foreshadowing); it is also the most surreal, and the first section when he is adrift on the sea of sand is downright hard to figure out, because we don't yet have enough knowledge of the world to know what is real and what is metaphor. But that discordant note is a very carefully measured choice on Valente's part.

There is a passage in Lois McMaster Bujold's THE CURSE OF CHALION that seems appropriate, so I will quote it here:

"You have to make a cup of yourself, to receive that pouring out [necessary to becoming a saint]. You are a sword. You were always a sword. Like your mother and your daughter, too -- steel spines run in the women of your family. I realize now why I never saw saints, before. The world does not crash upon their wills like waves upon a rock, or part around them like the wake of a ship. Instead they are supple, and swim through the world as silently as fishes."

John is just such a sword. He is the catalyst, the thing that, when added to Hagia's delicately balanced world, changes the world rather than being changed itself. That's why when he finally is mirrored it's by Thomas, another Christian who stumbled into paradise, with vastly different results.

And Hagia is. . . absolutely the most perfect challenge her world casts against John. The book is incredibly sensual -- far more sensual than PALIMPSEST, which was all about sex. Each of the men of the Church is confronted with the world of the body he thought he left behind: Thomas by Imtithal's physical affection; Hiob by the fragrant, liquid rot that worked against him in his task of copying; and John by Hagia, with her eyes where her nipples should be, at the tips of abundant breasts, and totally comfortable in that body. The tension in the book comes from those challenges, even though we already know who ends up the victor.

To bring a long rambling squee to the point, every moment of this novel is perfectly constructed, every choice deliberately calculated to further the story being told. Because of this (not despite it) it is deeply moving. The best thing I read last year was Valente's two-volume THE ORPHAN'S TALES; so far this year, it is definitely THE HABITATION OF THE BLESSED.
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reviewed The Habitation of the Blessed on + 2527 more book reviews
I have read a number of Valente's books and absolutely adored them. Like her previous books this book was beautifully written with excellent imagery. The book is told from four viewpoints and was a bit harder for me to read than previous books. As such, it was probably my least favorite book of hers to date, that being said it was still incredibly creative and beautifully written.

Brother Hiob of Luzerne stumbles upon a tree that sprouts books instead of fruit while working at a missionary in the Himalayans. He is allowed to pluck three books from the tree. The first is written by Prester John himself and tells of Prester's journey into magical lands. The second is written by Prester's wife Hagia; an immortal who carries her face on her chest and has no head. The third is a collection of nursery tales by a being named Imtithal who was a nanny.

This book has a lot of what I have come to love from Valente; crazily creative creatures and descriptions that come alive to the reader, beautiful writing that is incredibly rich and weaves wonderfully magical pictures, and tons of mythological references. The story alternates between Brother Hiob, Prester John, Hagia, and Imtithal. As such it progresses slowly and has more of a plodding mythological and somewhat religious tone to it than previous works.

I enjoyed hearing from Brother Hiob who had to alternate his reading because each of the books he pulled off of the tree started rotting as soon as he plucked them off. As such he becomes obsessed with reading these stories before they rot. I also enjoyed Prester John's viewpoint as he stumbles into a magical and wonderful land after crossing a sea of sand. Although Prester John's very catholic religious viewpoints are a bit tiresome at times, it is interesting to see how this new land reacts to his very orthodox viewpoint.

I also enjoyed Hagia's viewpoint. She is immortal and is a blemmye (has no head, but her face is on her torso). She falls in love with Prester John. Although most of her accounts are about her various lives and loves and it is isn't until later in the book she meets with Prester John.

I did not enjoy the sections by Imtithal as much. Imtithal has three children she takes care of and is a being with huge ears that can enfold her whole body. You don't really know how she is related to Prester John until much later in the story. Imtithal tells a number of creation myths to her young charges. I had trouble connecting these with the other parts of the story and constantly had to work on focusing on the stories because my mind would start to wander. I just couldn't relate to the stories or relate them to the overall book.

This book is a slow read. The writing is incredibly beautiful and well done, but you need to take time to read it and really pay attention to understand what is going on. There is a lot of ambiguity here. The constantly switching viewpoints makes the story progress slowly and presents more of a puzzle that the reader needs to piece together than a cohesive story. It is masterfully done, but slow to read.

Overall I really enjoyed this book and continue to enjoy Valente's beautiful writing and the absolutely crazy and wacky creatures and worlds that she weaves. This book was a slow read and one you really need to pay attention to and think about while you read. I wasn't crazy about the changing viewpoints and the way you had to piece the story together. I also had some trouble relating Imtithal's sections to the rest of the story. If you are a fan of mythology and beautiful writing and don't mind some ambiguity I can definitely recommend this to you. I didn't find it to be quite as magical and wonderful as previous books I have read by Valente, but it was still very well done.
reviewed The Habitation of the Blessed on + 203 more book reviews
This is a beautiful, imaginative, epic tale. Like she did in 'The Orphan's Tales,' Catherynne Valente weaves together overlapping narratives to create a rich tapestry that shows a wonderous, fantastic world unlike anything I've seen before. I am impatiently awaiting the publication of the second volume of this series!