Seven months on from finishing The Folded World, the second novel in Catherynne M. Valente’s as-yet-unfinished Dirge for Prester John, I’m struggling to find anything to say about it that I haven’t already said in my review of the first novel, The Habitation of the Blessed.
It is some years after Valente’s version of the mythical Christian king Prester John seized control of the deathless land of Pentexore by rigging the Abir, the lottery which grants to each Pentexoran a new role in society every three hundred years to stave off the boredom of immortality. A daughter he did not know he had comes to him, bearing a letter from Constantinople asking for help in the Crusades. John’s wife Hagia narrates how he leads the Pentexorans, for whom war is a grand game with no casualties and death is simply the beginning of a new phase of life, into a bloody and treacherous conflict from which many of them will not return. Behind them John and Hagia leave their daughter Sefalet, who has a mouth on each hand – one that speaks with the sweet voice of a child, and another whose voice is cynical, bitter and adult; her tale is narrated by her guardian Vyala. Finally, another human, John Mandeville, stumbles into the land behind the diamond wall that supposedly contains the dread giants Gog and Magog, and records the adventures that happen to him there.
The novel’s structure, then, with its three braided voices framed by the tale of the monk who’s recording them centuries later, is pretty much identical to its predecessor’s. Thematically, too, it covers much of the same ground: Christianity as colonisation; the loss of innocence; the senselessness of religious conflict. And despite the fact that The Folded World features two new narrators, the voice is the same too, lush and rich with complex imagery and allusion.
None of which is to say that The Folded World is a bad novel: on the contrary, it’s a genuinely unusual take on medieval history and intellectual attitudes, deeply informed by Old Testament imagery and yet not explicitly Christian. It’s certainly light-years ahead of the vast majority of medieval fantasy; simply utterly different in its approach to the world and to this period in history. And perhaps it’s churlish to complain that it’s too similar to its predecessor when that predecessor is so original. And yet, there it is. I wish I had got more out of it.