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Authors: Catherynne M. Valente

Tags: #Fantasy, #novel

Myths of Origin

BOOK: Myths of Origin
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Copyright © 2011 by Catherynne M. Valente.

Cover art by Jeffrey Smith (

Cover design by Telegraphy Harness.

Ebook design by Neil Clarke.

ISBN: 978-1-890464-16-5 (ebook)

ISBN: 978-1-890464-14-1 (trade paperback)

Wyrm Publishing

No portion of this book may be reproduced by any means, mechanical, electronic, or otherwise, without first obtaining the permission of the copyright holder.

For more information, contact Wyrm Publishing.

For all those I loved then and now, who had a part in the life that surrounded these books: Dmitri, Sam, Melissa, Kaite, Matt, Ryan, and Seth.


by Jeff VanderMeer

The Labyrinth

Yume No Hon: the Book of Dreams

The Grass-Cutting Sword

Under in the Mere

Story Notes

About the Author



“We are finished. Our smile is beatific and mouthless. We have no more body to puzzle us, and our voices multiply in infinite combinations, through the trees and stones and snow . . . ”

Catherynne M. Valente is a force unto herself, one of those quadruple threats who can burn her way into your brain with novels, short stories, poetry, or blog entries. She’s unapologetic about using a poetic style, although she’s underrated in terms of the muscularity, the toughness, the sheer bloody-mindedness of her prose. At heart, Valente is a unique member of the writers’ bestiary: a creature made of words who swims like a dolphin through pages of prose. Pure writers hardly ever come as pure as this . . .

It’s no surprise, then, that in just a few short years Valente has risen from obscurity to become one of the most important and unique fantasists of the early twenty-first century. Whether it’s the fascinating and convoluted stories-within-stories that typified the Orphan’s Tales duology, the mythic, pseudo-historical storytelling of her Prester John series, the sensuous, Decadent human landscapes of her one-off novel
or her most recent, based on Russian folktales,
, Valente is always pushing herself and her readers toward the visionary allied with the all-too-human. Her intense education in the classics is often finely balanced against the uncompromising nature of her prose. In an era when many preach the virtues of invisible prose, Valente’s having none of it—exploding the myth that you can’t have both lush, intricate prose and accessibility for the reader.

But what might not be as clear to Valente’s fans is that she started out writing fiction just as compelling and rich as the works for which she has received wider acclaim. This omnibus edition bristles and sparks with evidence of that auspicious beginning, containing four works that provide valuable corroboration of her talent:
The Labyrinth, Yume no Hon: The Book of Dreams, The Grass-Cutting Sword
, and
Under In the Mere.

My own first encounter with Valente’s work was that first novel, for which I wrote the introduction. As I wrote then, “Have we been here before? Yes and no—we’ve seen these mountains, those valleys, before (at least from afar), but that makes no difference. Every time language dislocates and damages us with the intensity of its unexpected beauty, and the truth of that beauty, we undergo a similar transformation—and we return so we can be dislocated and beautifully damaged once again, albeit in a slightly different way . . . That the author is drunk with words belies the control with which she uses them.”

In contrast to the continuous phantasmagorical dream that is
The Labyrinth
, Valente demonstrates other strengths in, for example,
Yume no Hon: The Book of Dreams
, which combines revisionist folktale approaches with an often generous sense of humor. Her attention to detail is exemplified by a chuckle-inducing section with a Snail “moving within his ponderous shell towards the thickest and most delicious of my vines” whose “oilskin rippled slightly and eye-stalks swiveled vaguely in my direction” when the narrator raps “imperiously on that iridescent shell.” A rich style, yes, but grounded in close observation of the world.

By contrast yet again,
The Grass-Cutting Sword
consists of a series of short, sharp shocks: a condensed storytelling that demonstrates Valente’s effectiveness within a somewhat smaller-scale narrative. The compression in these connected, open-ended moments is impressive: “Yet I have always wondered—what marvelous, secret things could have been woven from that wet, black thread, the thread that smelled so sweet burning?”

Pivoting yet again, away from Eastern influence and toward a re-imagining of Arthurian legends, Valente in the novella
Under In the Mere
that ends this book engages in a different kind of elevated language that manages to also modernize the source material: “Around me, before I could draw breath, was a town of oak-shacks and dark seal-heads floating grim in the morning, a town full of trickling wells and streets that blew dust at themselves . . . I rode into the Underworld on the singing angle of my golden sextant, eyes open, charts asplay, and yet, and yet. I suppose I ought to have known.” Journeys of both a physical nature and of the characters’ inner life permeate
Under In the Mere
, both stranger and more familiar than the quest in
The Labyrinth
and yet allied with it.

Have I given the impression that Valente is an intensely visual writer? I hope so. Painters and writers are somewhat similar with regard to style, although they often have different goals with regard to the idea of narrative. Like writers, painters have a palette of colors to work with, which they then deploy to create a painting using brushstrokes. These brushstrokes are dictated by the types of brushes they use, and their personal approach to creating the brushstrokes. How they mix and layer the paint. The resulting image of a person will seem to exist independent of the brushstrokes, but it has no such autonomy: it is dependent on the use of charcoal rather than watercolor, oils rather than acrylics. In this regard, Valente demonstrated from the beginning of her career an ability to create very different effects within her lush style.

And if you are a writer like Valente, style doesn’t exist just in the syllable because style doesn’t encrust a story, form on top of it. Instead, style permeates. It inhabits. Here, in
Myths of Origin,
it exists in every meaning and derivation of the words, and in the hearts of her characters. This is a special kind of obsession, beautiful and true.

“And the book lay between us, bulging and dark, promising. The Fox retained her beatific face; I opened the cover with a careful hand and read these things.”






All that I know is contained in this book,

written without witness,

an edifice without dimension,

a city hanging in the sky.

—Anaïs Nin,
House of Incest

A human being who has not only come to terms and learned to get along with whatever was and is, but who wants to have what was and is repeated into all eternity, shouting insatiably
da capo
—not only to himself but to the whole play and spectacle, and not only to a spectacle but at bottom to him who needs precisely this spectacle—and who makes it necessary because again and again he needs himself—and makes himself necessary—What? And this wouldn’t be—
circulus vitiosus deus?

—Friedrich Nietzsche



Look closely. This is not the Way.

Up or down, I could not say, I could not say. I ate the severed halves of a Compass Rose seven-hundred-and-negative-eight miles back, covering the yellow red meat with lime skins and choking it down. Now it is Within. So I could not say northwest or south, only the veil-fire
that way
and the moon-forest
this way
, this turn or that turn, round the oleander Wall rippling underwater or over the mandrake Wall salivating on my hand as I execute a three-quarters pike half-caffeinated flip over its thick shoulders. My body is bound with guitar strings, nipples like fawn’s hooves strumming E minor chords and finger-picking a Path through resonant briars, redolent of the desert bellies of blue lizards. By now my feet are worn through, holes like mouths gaping and smacking in cathedral soles, pounding, thrusting on the Path like a drum-skin stretched into incandescence, finding that old comfortable rhythm that by now I know so well, that I invented out of dust and the sweat beading prettily on my own calves.

It is all familiar now, after the passage of constellations and the ingestion of the Compass Rose, holding now that flaming cross inside me,
in this sign thou shalt conquer
, north-brow south-hips east-wrist west-thigh, in this sign thou shalt walk until the end of days, in this sign thou shalt blaze and burn, in this sign thou shalt stride tall through this Place, this happy Garden of Lies, in this sign thou shalt eat berries and lie under the moon, and let it tan your skin silver.

I carry Direction inside me like a child, a watery infant daughter of a circuit of dawns, connected by the fibrous strength of my spinal fluid and thread sun from the enamel of my teeth. She, in all her diamond gills and sunfish fins is anchored in my rich belly, wrapping her precious little Compass-form in my umbilicus like a mummy, and so I am her sarcophagus, too. Her mother and her coffin.

And the directions never change, magnetic north is always at the crown of my mercurial head, south always at the arch of my holy foot, for I carry the Rose within, growing like a Vedic moon. O serpentine I, having a tail fat with scales linked like opaline chain mail, and thus no way to give birth to this precise little cat-child, kept inside an adamant muscle wall. It pushes against my ribcage, stretching the skin of my lifting belly. Amphibious and infertile, webbed into frozen fecundity, Great-With-Child, never Birthed, never Mother. Trapped in the swallowing, breasts heavy and pendulous with milk, unable ever to feel the tug of that small mouth against them. Ever huge with the weight of oceans, of a thousandthousand mountains, halted in freeze frame like an urn. Ambrosial blood swimming between us, the eater and the eaten and the eater again, sucking at the soil of the womb like a clear-petalled lilac. And in this habit of motion-forward, I have learned:

The Void of the Labyrinth does not exactly stretch, or exactly coil, or exactly twist. But it
. A bolt of belligerent lightning-silk angrily unraveled, corded, torn, circumnavigating itself in a rattling feint, coming apart and crushing in. And it changes, like the horned moon, cycling without pattern. Walls mutate like film noir rape scenes, tearing at pearl skirts with mud-brick fingers that leave stigmatic bruises.

Roads. Oh god, I cannot speak of it, but the Roads have filled me entirely, stuffed and crammed into every corner, oozing out of my body like icy caviar. They are my avenue-bracelets and my fat sapphire street chokers, my gold scarab short-cut armbands and my boulevard harem anklets, they are my cobblestone coin belts and my alleyway-agate earrings. Long Paths criss-cross my torso like ammunition belts, and the innumerable dead-ends pierce my breasts beautifully, hanging pendulously, swinging with laughter, slapping triumphantly against my bronzed belly.

BOOK: Myths of Origin
10.6Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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