Review: In the Cities of Coin and Spice (The Orphan’s Tales 02) by Catherynne M. Valente

Synopsis (from Goodreads):

Her name and origins are unknown, but the endless tales inked upon this orphan’s eyelids weave a spell over all who listen to her read her secret history. And who can resist the stories she tells? From the Lake of the Dead and the City of Marrow to the artists who remain behind in a ghost city of spice, here are stories of hedgehog warriors and winged skeletons, loyal leopards and sparrow calligraphers. Nothing is too fantastic, anything can happen, but you’ll never guess what comes next in these intimately linked adventures of firebirds and djinn, singing manticores, mutilated unicorns, and women made entirely of glass and gears. In the Cities of Coins and Spice is a book of dreams and wonders unlike any you’ve ever encountered. Open it anywhere and you will fall under its spell. For here the story never ends and the magic is only beginning…

My impressions:

In The Cities of Coin and Spice is the second and final book in The Orphan’s Tales – a mythopoetic series penned by Ms Valente. It is written, like the first part, as a story within a story and it is divided into two parts. It contains many of the aspects that could be found in the first book, such as Valente’s lush writing style, and the stories within stories format, but it can be read as a stand-alone easily. Still I would like to warn you: if you don’t start with the first book (its review, written by yours truly, might be found here) you’ll have far less enjoyment. Why? I will explain in a while.

While I enjoyed the first part insanely, awarding it my ‘best books’ badge, “In the Cities of Coin and Spice” I found a bit lacking. Don’t get me wrong: it was still a very original story full of unconventional ideas and characters, like a dying Jinni queen, a straw Star diminished to the size of a little yarrow box or a phoenix called Lantern. If you are in a mood for fresh and sometimes downright bizarre fairy tales which break all stereotypes and celebrate women, Valente’s both books of “The Orphan’s Tales” are for you. Actually one of my favorite parts was picking up on the little moments that tied the big stories from both books together – a fantastic feeling of recognition and continuation was enhancing greatly my reading experience. That’s why I strongly recommend to read both parts in the proper order and one after another; otherwise you might forget this and that and get lost in the labyrinthine narration which, while compelling, might also be a tad overwhelming.

So. The second part is a kind of continuation of the first but with some extras. It is also darker, more depressing, full of blood, suffering and sadness. While the first book carried me along like a high-flying kite, this one dragged me like a huge, heavy wagon. Often I felt as if I was being dropped into a deep pool without any lifebelt. I also have to admit I had a harder time keeping track of who was who and generally what was going on within a particular strand of the narration and how it fitted the general scheme of things. Perhaps it’s only me but I had the feeling that the outer story, being injected much less regularly, caused that mayhem. The whole book somehow lost that anchoring superstructure; as a result the internal story arcs were too long, disconnected and meandering. I don’t want to say Valente had run out of inspiration or energy but she certainly wrote the second part being in a different mood.

Final verdict:

“In the Cities of Coin and Spice” was a much darker story full of monsters and lonely children, exploring the fates of the unwanted and the enslaved. Some parts of it were very disturbing, especially for a fairy tale so no, I don’t recommend it for any child. I suppose its biggest weakness was the fact that, contrary to the first part, many of the stories didn’t really go anywhere; still I wanted to know who the Orphan was so I managed to read it all. And I didn’t regret it. Still recommendable but no longer brilliant.

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7 Responses to Review: In the Cities of Coin and Spice (The Orphan’s Tales 02) by Catherynne M. Valente

  1. blodeuedd says:

    So a bit of the second book cure upon it

  2. Melfka says:

    Interesting perspective. I strongly disagree this book can be read as stand-alone since it ties so tightly into the events of the first book and to its very beginning.
    I also wonder whether the feeling of lack of superstructure comes from the difference: the first book had only “the story within the story within…” structure, while the other one also has to maintain the parallel one – to the first book.
    I agree this one is much darker, and as for the lack brilliance – to me it was more a matter of oversaturation. That’s why I didn’t see “Deathless” as brilliant either. Too much of the same.

    • I strongly disagree this book can be read as stand-alone since it ties so tightly into the events of the first book and to its very beginning.

      Still the story was narrated in such a way that I felt it was possible to enjoy it without knowing the first part. Of course reading the first book would help a lot but, at least in my case, I felt it wasn’t so completely necessary.

  3. Carole Rae says:

    BTW – feel free to share some links on the vamp post Maria made at my place. hehe

    But I am unsure about this. :/ I need a break from fantasy I think.

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