In the Cities of Coin and Spice
by Catherynne M. Valente
528 pages, Spectra.
Review by Kate Kasserman
I have read a great many fairy tales. As in not just the Brothers Grimm and Andrew Lang but the complete 1001 Nights (thank you, Mr. Burton!). I am very fond of the form; but humanity has not produced inexhaustible reserves of it, and, let’s face it, the stories do get a little interchangeable and repetitive at times (I cite again my experience with 1001 Nights – just so you know, Scheherazade totally cheated, not that I blame her, and trotted out the same tale with almost no variation more than once).
So I was happy to discover In the Cities of Coin and Spice at the bookstore, even though it is book #2 of a two-book series and the first volume nowhere in sight. “They’re fairy tales,” I reasoned, “it won’t matter.” And in fact I was quite correct (always cause for celebration!): while there are a few references to stories I did not know in this book, presumably covered in the first volume, this detracts nothing from a strange and interesting journey.
The basic set-up is that we have some beautiful starving girl skulking in the vast gardens of a Sultan’s palace, and she has a whole lotta stories written in itsy-bitsy letters across her eyelids. The heir apparent, a pleasant boy (it is good when princes are pleasant), sneaks out of the palace to bring her whatever food she’ll accept and listen to her read from her eyelids (except for the last stories, which are inked where she cannot read and so are related by him to her).
The stories themselves are both nesting and interlocked: nesting in the sense that you will be in the middle of a seventh-son carried by the winds into a dead city where he is forced to work minting coins, and he makes friends with a girl who turns out to be a hybrid girl-tree-cow, and she explains her peculiar nature with…another story, which goes on its own path and then returns to the seventh-son, and so forth; and interlocking in that if you’re curious, for example, what happens to the manticore (I particularly liked that manticore), who is really only a tangential thing at her first appearance, well, you do find out, but only in the context of another story much later on.
Valente knows her fairy tales well, putting her own twist on even such far-flung inventions as the kappa (sprites with hollow heads that contain water that can be spilled out if they, tragically polite when they are not biting people – it will not come as a surprise, I think, that the kappa come to us thanks to Japan – happen to bow while on land). And she just makes stuff up, too – a lot of stuff, a positive glut of stuff, which satisfies one of the basic, fundamental requirements of a fairy-tale: just saying, “whoa, look at THAT!”
As in traditional fairy tales, friendship and loyalty are placed at greatest value (although not without cost, sometimes extreme); but unlike traditional stories, romantic love really does not fare too well. It is pretty much guaranteed to make you eat or be eaten (yikes!). This makes for interesting reading – and at least we do have friendship with which to console ourselves in inky-orphan-world – although I do wonder how this perspective would play with children and teenagers, who are generally disposed to want to take a more upbeat view of such matters.
However, this dysphoric view of issues romantic, and the matter-of-fact violence both physical and emotional that inhabits most – okay, pretty much all – of the stories kept them from feeling, well, a bit twee, as a fairy-tale might unless it is careful to keep its teeth. Blood, bone, flesh, and misery are the price exacted for any purpose or progress in the characters’ lives and quests, an interesting economy that is no less true in the artist-colony of exhausted Ajanabh (the city of spice) than it is in the dead, ravenous Marrow (the city of coin, which turns unwanted children’s bones into hard cash).
Haven’t I made it all sound delightful? But actually, it is fun, and very quick reading (each story chapter is only a few pages long). There is happiness at the end of all the travail, for some of the characters you would expect and others you might not – although, even if the series has concluded, I know better than to think “the end” is the end. There is no happily-ever-after in this world; only happy-for-now, and a job well done – for the moment, until the next adventure – now the unwritten ones.