In the Cities of Coin and Spice by Catherynne M. Valente. ★★★★★
In the Cities of Coin and Spice is the sequel to In the Night Garden, which you really must read first. In fact, I think they’re more of one book split into two parts than sequels. I’d definitely recommend reading them close together – I was wishing that I’d read Cities immediately after Night Garden. If you’re new to these two books (known collectively as The Orphan’s Tales), I highly recommend them. They’re beautiful, fantastical, imaginative stories that are unlike anything I’ve read before in their construction. You see, this isn’t a short story collection with a framing device – it’s a woven tapestry of tales, all looping back into each other.
In the garden of a palace, there lives an orphan girl with stories written on her eyelids. She has been completely alone until she is befriended by a young prince, whom she tells the stories to. These stories are all set in the same world, with an immersive mythos and sense of wonder.
“Another creature’s tale is like a web: It spirals in and out again, and if you are not careful, you may become stuck, while the teller weaves on.”
All of the stories she tells are interlocking, like nesting dolls, and they all relate back to each other. Practically each character you come across has the chance to tell his or her own story. Stories will be framed within stories up to six or seven layers. For example, here’s one point early on in the book:
First layer: The orphan in the garden tells a story to the boy.
Second layer: A one arm man travels on the ferry through the underworld. Third layer: He tells the ferryman the story of his past, where he met a girl. Fourth layer: The girl he met long ago tells a story about when she was a child and encountered a hedgehog.
Fifth layer: The hedgehog talking about how one day he came up from his burrow and met a solider.
Six layer: The solider tells how she was recruited and what happened to her.
In the Cities of Coin and Spice is heavily related to In the Night Garden, as I said before. Threads left in Night Garden are picked up and woven back into Cities, and stories from Night Garden are constantly referenced.
“We like the wrong sorts of girls, they wrote. They are usually the ones worth writing about.”
Something I love about The Orphan’s Tales is how it has such a variety of female characters and how it really deconstructs the “Pure Maiden” trope. Take the story of the good sister who has pearls drop from her lips and the bad sister who has toads drop from hers. Cities reverses the normal order of this completely, with the unruly, rebellious daughter becoming far more of a heroine than her sister.
Female characters are also allowed to be non-human. Among the major players of Cities, there’s a djinn queen, a manticore singer, and a talking she-leopard. A major theme of The Orphan Tales as a whole involves the “monstrous” character, such as the manticore, being heroic. Beauty and heroism are not correlated.
Reading In the Night Garden and In the Cities of Coin and Spice was an utterly immersive, magical experience. It does require a certain amount of work from the reader, as it’s up to you to keep track of how all the stories relate, but the result is more than worth it. I would highly recommend these books to anyone looking for a beautiful and fantastical read that channels folklore and fairytales.