I really ought to have reviewed Catherynne M. Valente’s two Orphan’s Tales novels together; like Abigail Nussbaum, I think they’re basically doing the same thing. In the Cities of Coin and Spice is almost identical, structurally, to its predecessor In the Night Garden: it again consists of tales read from the uncanny birthmark of a shunned young girl who inhabits the vast and wondrous Garden of a sultan’s palace. Again, those tales frame and interrupt each other, creating an intricate tapestry of story that serves to reveal a world as well as the limitations of each storyteller. And again, the novel’s split into two books: the Book of the Storm, set in a ghostly city whose currency depends on coins made of bone; and the Book of the Scald, in which an army of djinns besieges a fabulous but dying city.
In this novel, however, we learn how all these tales connect to the girl’s own history and how she came to be in the Garden in the first place. “They are the tales of everyone who reached into the silver shadows and pulled [her] into the world.” This great wash of story, all for one person! If In the Cities of Coin and Spice adds anything to In the Night Garden, it’s this awareness of just how much history one life can have; how much that is strange and wondrous lies in the past (and future) of each person on this planet. The Orphan’s Tales as a whole is still not my favourite of Valente’s work – but it’s still enchanting, imaginative and fascinatingly complex.