Title: The Habitation of the Blessed
Author: Catherynne M. Valente
Series: A Dirge for Prester John #1
Published: 1 November 2010
Publisher: Night Shade Books
Genre: mythology, fantasy, metafiction
Source: own copy
Can you compose a review out of quotes? I suppose not, because that wouldn’t be a review, but I wanted to. The Habitation of the Blessed is such a beautiful, beautifully written book that I kept writing down quotes. This book was just unbelievably lovely from the very first line:
“I am a very bad historian. But I am a very good miserable old man. I sit at the end of the world, close enough to see my shrivelled old legs hang over the bony ridge of it. I came so far for gold and light and a story the size of the sky. But I have managed to gather only a basket of ash and a kind of empty sorrow, that the world is not how I wished it to be.” (5)
I love the sorrow-tinged humour there – a terrible historian but an excellent miserable old man. I love the imagery – light, gold, and the vastness of the sky, contrasted with a basket of ash and disappointment. And I love the pathos in those last words, “that the world is not how I wished it to be”. The speaker is a monk named Brother Hiob of Luzerne, and his words speak of the death of his faith.
Hiob was on a mission to find Prester John, a legendary Christian priest and king who supposedly ruled over many rich and powerful lands in the East. Hiob began his quest with a sense of awe inspired by this myth of Prester John and the East:
“We hoped to find so much in the East, hoped to find a palace of amethyst, a fountain of umblemished water, a gate of ivory. Brushing the frost from our bread, we dreamed, as all monks had since the wonderful Letter appeared, of a king in the East called Prester John, who bore a golden cross on his breast. We whispered and gossiped about him like old women. We told each other that he was strong as a hundred men, that he drank from the Fountain of Youth, that his sceptre held as jewels the petrified eyes of St. Thomas.” (6)
This dream turns out to be both exaggerated and nowhere near as magnificent as the truth. Hiob travels to the East with a group of monks, but instead of finding a utopia and an immortal Christian king, they find a dusty village where a woman sadly tells them that John is gone. To give him the story he wants, she leads Hiob to a miraculous tree that grows books instead of fruit:
“In clusters and alone, books of all shapes hung among the pointed leaves, their covers obscenely bright and shining, swollen as peaches, gold and green and cerulean, their pages thick as though with juice, their silver ribbonmarks fluttering in the spiced wind.” (10)
The woman allows Hiob to pick three books to transcribe. One is John’s story, telling of his time in a land called Pentexore, the utopia that the monks seek. The second is written by John’s wife Hagia, telling her own story and thereby giving us an idea of life in Pentexore. The third is a collection of stories written by Imithal, the nanny of three royal children. Imithal’s tales gives us some of the history and mythology of the land.
Pentextore is the idealised land of plenty, but also the home of mythological creatures (gryphons, phoenixes), talking animals, and some creatures that are completely unheard of, like the panottii who have huge, silken ears like wings and feed on sound. The earth is so fecund that anything planted in it will grow into a tree – animals, parchment, books, even people. When John first stumbles into Pentexore after crossing a sea of stone, he finds a ‘war garden’ where canons have sprouted peppery cannonball fruit and fallen horses have grown into trees with horse-head fruits that snort and whinny. When creatures die, their bodies are planted so they live on as trees. Death is something that generally only happens by accident though, because Pentexore has the Fountain of Youth, and its inhabitants are thus immortal. Being an immortal in paradise is not quite as simple as one might think though, and the Pentexorans have careful social practices designed to preserve their way of life. The most important is a ritual known as Abir, which happens every few decades. It’s a kind of lottery in which each person is given a new life and a new partner. You can deviate from the course set out for you, but you cannot acknowledge your previous lives. It can be painful, but it is essential to avoid being stuck in one life for eternity and turning paradise into hell.
As amazed as he is by these stories, Hiob is also deeply disturbed by them because they contradict his beliefs and his idealistic idea of John. One of the first passages he reads tells of John’s funeral, confirming that the immortal king is dead. Contrary to the belief that John was some kind of perfect Christian, the books reveal that he committed many sins and uttered many blasphemous statements. Hiob cannot believe that his idolised priest king could have “sullied himself with a spouse”, let alone a blemmye – a headless creature who carries her face in her torso. Hiob almost wrote her out of the story because she “could not be suffered to exist” (40). John himself could not even bear to look at Hagia when he first met her, because her eyes are on her breasts and therefore she does not cover herself as he believes women should.
Of course John himself experiences many blows to his Christian beliefs:
“It is as though every story I ever heard had broken itself on the shores of this places like blind, brittle whaltes, and I walked among their shards, that could never be made whole again.” (82)
“either this is the devil’s country or it is God’s. They invert everything I know to be true. But whatever they say is proven real by my eyes, my ears, my hands” (225).
Having proof of these supposedly impossible things is such a contrast to the idea of Christian faith and John often finds himself at a loss. How do all these strange creatures fit into God’s plan? They are not simple animals, and in fact some of the ‘animals’ think and speak like humans. If anything, the Pentexorans are superior to humanity, having managed to live in peace and happiness for so long. God’s promise of eternal life is pointless in Pentextore, where the Fountain of Youth has made them all immortal, and death is easily remedied by planting the body so that the person is transformed into a sentient tree. When John tries to preach to the Pentexorans, they ask him questions he can’t answer and find his ideas ignorant and unconvincing.
Despite all the magnificent things that John finds, he sticks stubbornly to his beliefs. He is always looking for his God, and trying to fit everything into Christian doctrine with a theory that Pentexore is Eden. Hagia and the other Pentexorans are baffled and frustrated by this. “He has never loved anyone but God. What kind of man is that?” (162), one of them wonders in disgust as he sees John continually rejecting or denouncing the beauty of the world and its inhabitants. Writing after John’s death, Hagia laments, “In all your world of sins, was it never shameful to reject life and all its works?” (84).
The Pentexorans are not without religion – each race has its own god or gods – but they cannot understand John’s devotion to the cruel Christian God. They find John’s bible stories “ugly” (63) and “uncivilised”. Why, for example, didn’t God forgive Adam and Eve? “A parent who does not forgive a child’s first offence is a tyrant” (135) a gryphon tells John. And why is Eve (and therefore women in general) so despised? Knowing what it is like to live in paradise, Hagia has a different interpretation of The Fall:
“Your Eve was wise John. She knew Paradise would make her mad, if she were to live forever with Adam and know no other thing but strawberries and tigers and rivers of milk. She knew they would tire of these things, and each other. They would grow to hate every fruit, every stone, every creature they touched. Yet where could they go to find any new thing? It takes strength to live in Paradise and not collapse under the weight of it. It is every day a trial. And so Eve gave her lover the gift of time, time to the timeless, so that they could grasp at happiness” (63).
Time is an important feature in the novel, and tinges all the beauty with sadness. The books that Hiob is transcribing are rotting like normal fruit, and as he progresses the pages are eaten by mould and turn to mush. In later parts of the novel, parts of the stories are cut off as the pages disintegrate, and eventually there’s nothing left. The story is left incomplete, and Hiob is devastated.
I was too. This is the kind of book you dream of reading. It’s written in a rich, mythical style that in itself has the power to transport you to the world it describes. Reading it is a sensual experience – it’s as if you’re sipping on fine wine or savouring a perfect dish, and even common words can seem like delicacies. The fact that you can’t have the whole story is terrible and yet it makes you appreciate the book more. That wouldn’t stop me from reading the sequel though – I want to taste that exquisite prose again. John and Hagia’s stories continue in The Folded World, with a new set of boos plucked from the book tree. I have the eARC of The Folded World, but I want a hardcopy anyway. I bought a hardcopy of The Habitation of the Blessed, and it’s definitely the kind of book that you’d want to read on paper. It’s a gorgeous book too, with deckle-edged pages. I strongly suggest you borrow or buy it – it’s a mythical must-read.