The Marquess of Genre: Catherynne M. Valente

Saturday 11 January 2020



Start with The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making. Read it to the kid that you babysit or quietly to yourself. It's a book to grow up with, first reading it for the excitement and colour, then going back to year after year for its wisdom and lush descriptions. The idea that children are born heartless is my favourite of Valente's iterations that love is something you have to work at.

Then, read Deathless, my favourite, and Valente's darkest and sexiest. Written just as any political writer would have in 1942, Russia, “with only a few true things hidden in it”, Deathless is an account of the Russian Revolution disguised in a Slavic fairytale. Here, house brownies are Stalinist informants, dragons are bureaucrats, Baba Yaga drives a car, and a forest creature is a gun. A word of caution: beware of recent Goodreads reviews who 'ship' Marya Morevna with her captor. It is only a romance in so far that you think love is a warm gun. 

“It’s … mushroom-life. The pale, rooty kind that grows in blackness. I’ll bet in all your years he has never given you fresh a fresh apple to eat. Everything he loves is preserved, salted … pickled. I suppose it’s alive, but it’s kept alive, forever, in a glass bell. And he is, too. A pickled husband, that’s what you have.”

Afterwards, you'll be ready for her denser, weirder stuff, such as The Habitation of the Blessed, a beautiful series on Christianity written by a total heretic, or The Orphan Tales series, which I myself am still lost in the bramble of, or, if after finishing the lot of the Fairyland series (including a short story published online post-Trump election) you're still in the mood for children's, her lewis carollian Brontë sister fantasy which has magic that looks exactly like the make-believe of children, speaks their made-up language and has the makings of a terrific stop-motion film.

Just please, please, PLEASE, promise me you'll keep Radiance for last. A 1-star reviewer called it “intellectual masturbation” and it is EXACTLY that, but by then, you'll be so smitten you'd read about swan sex if Valente had her name on it. In fact, you already will have. 

Cover art: Arthur Szyk. Andersen's Fairy Tales. 1944. Grosset & Dunlap, New York.

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