Title: The Habitation of the Blessed
Series Title: A Dirge for Prester John
Author: Catherynne M. Valente
Date Added: September 28, 2012
Date Started: March 26, 2018
Date Finished: May 23, 2018
Reading Duration: 58 days
Genre: Fantasy, Historical Fiction, Christian Mythos
Publication Date: March 1, 2010
Publisher: Night Shade Books
This is the story of a place that never was: the kingdom of Prester John, the utopia described by an anonymous, twelfth-century document which captured the imagination of the medieval world and drove hundreds of lost souls to seek out its secrets, inspiring explorers, missionaries, and kings for centuries. But what if it were all true? What if there was such a place, and a poor, broken priest once stumbled past its borders, discovering, not a Christian paradise, but a country where everything is possible, immortality is easily had, and the Western world is nothing but a dim and distant dream?
Brother Hiob of Luzerne, on missionary work in the Himalayan wilderness on the eve of the eighteenth century, discovers a village guarding a miraculous tree whose branches sprout books instead of fruit. These strange books chronicle the history of the kingdom of Prester John, and Hiob becomes obsessed with the tales they tell. The Habitation of the Blessed recounts the fragmented narratives found within these living volumes, revealing the life of a priest named John, and his rise to power in this country of impossible richness. John’s tale weaves together with the confessions of his wife Hagia, a blemmye–a headless creature who carried her face on her chest–as well as the tender, jeweled nursery stories of Imtithal, nanny to the royal family.
They think you childish, that you insist your god looks just like you. That is how a baby thinks, because she has only her parents to protect her, so all the power in the universe bears her own face.
Catherynne M. Valente is mostly a hit with me, and though I’ve had issues getting into a few of her novels before, I was determined to give The Habitation of the Blessed another try. Not only did I love the language and mytho-religious basis of it, but the following book The Folded World seemed even more intriguing. Of course there’s no rule that says you must read all the books in a series; I just don’t like entering a narrative in the middle unless, of course, it’s in media res. The second attempt was more fruitful, and my inabilities prior might have been due to my own concentration issues. The beginning is a bit slow, but it doesn’t last for long.
The Habitation of the Blessed exists as a series of vignettes tied together and hinged on a butterfly’s wings. Using the framing device of Brother Hiob searching for Prester John who went abroad to teach Christianity, but found himself the recipient of an immortal faith. This style of story within story is very similar to Valente’s other series The Orphan’s Tales, though Habitation doesn’t go quite as Inception as the fore mentioned. It also involves multiple story tellers as opposed to just one.