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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
TOP 500 REVIEWERon October 13, 2013
There is a lot to praise in The Habitation of the Blessed. Catherynne M. Valente's skills with figurative language are unparalleled among the authors I've read lately. Valente really is quite good at writing, and some of her descriptions are an absolute delight to read -- including one episode which might strike some people as odd. Briefly, a man who is the prisoner (of sorts) of some sentient cranes requires food, and he's fed in the way birds feed their young -- by regurgitation. It is perfectly logical, if you think about it -- how else would birds feed someone? But it has been a long time since I have read such an original scene.

Valente has a number of other ideas that I haven't encountered before. Perhaps I will mix my discussion of these with a discussion of Pentexore (the land in which the book takes place), because I think some context is really needed. Valente has taken the famous (but probably forged) letter of Prester John as a starting point. I'm really not the most qualified person to talk about medieval history, to be fair. (Valente appears to have started a graduate program in medieval history and/or literature, but not to have finished it -- something she admits in the acknowledgments. And you can tell she really likes this stuff, and has read it and thought about it pretty thoroughly. And she weaves this source material expertly throughout the text. Or at least, I think so. Like I said, this is not my area.)

Anyway, Pentexore is the Christian kingdom Prester John mentions in his letter. He begins as a lost pilgrim in this land, which is home to all manner of magical creatures. These include blemmyae (people with no heads, eyes in the chest, mouths where their navels go, etc.), griffins, lamia (women and maybe men with serpents' tails below the waist), other sentient animals (cranes, red lions and white lions, etc.), and some humanlike creatures which have perhaps extremely large hands, or which take sound as sustenance, rather than physical food. There are really quite a lot of these creatures, and I'm sure they're all based in myth or imaginative (and/or dubious) historical accounts, but I have a bit of trouble keeping track of some of them.

Everyone in Pentexore is immortal as the fountain of youth exists in this land. Children drink from it at age 10, then again at age 20, and then at age 30, and this is all it takes to confer immortality. (Interestingly, the water is not pleasant to drink.) Sickness does sometimes occur, but people have the choice to be healed. People do sometimes die, for example of violence.

When people die, if they are buried, a tree will grow on which parts of their bodies (e.g. their heads, or perhaps their whole bodies) are the "fruits." Prester John encounters some of these, and even talks with them; for example, he has a rather long discourse with a tree bearing sheep's heads. (Actually, in Pentexore, pretty much anything you plant will grow a tree if you wait long enough.)

To keep things interesting, every 300 years, all the inhabitants of Pentexore gather at al-Qasr, which I gather is like the royal palace, and draw gemstones out of a barrel. Whatever the gemstones are, dictates what these people's lives will be for the next 300 years. All relationships are supposed to be void -- families are separated (though children are few and far between in a world where everyone is immortal) -- new spouses and careers are assigned. Hagia, the blemmye who narrates part of the book, is accepting of this; she justifies it, really, saying 300 years isn't so long for someone who will live forever.

So the morality in this place is, well, different. (People have to be polite to each other because no one ever dies.) Enter Prester John, who has come seeing the tomb of St. Thomas. (Pentexore is located, on a map, basically where India is today, east of Iran, which in the world of Habitation is a sea of sand called the Rimal.) John has been lost on the Rimal -- in an actual ship -- for some time, and in some of the earliest scenes with him, we are reading about his descent into madness (which is cured when he is finally able to leave the ship). As descriptions of madness go, it's pretty believable. Or at least, it seems that way to me, not having experienced anything quite like that in my own life.

But I should step back from the description to mention one other thing -- I talked about planting things, and the trees that result. At the time the book is set, in the not so distant past (well, I think at least the date 1699 was given), Pentexore is gone. In Habitation, we are following some monks who are searching out the fabled kingdom of Prester John. They come upon a woman who lives near a tree on which books grow. The woman allows the monk Hiob to pluck three books from the tree and he does so, excitedly transcribing from each of them in turn. One book is a memoir written by Prester John, one by Hagia the blemmye in her later years, and one is by Imtithal (a panoti, who takes nourishment from sound) who is also a nanny for the children of a woman (not human) who is queen at a time prior to John's arrival in Pentexore.

Because these books have grown from trees, they are prone to spoilage -- as is fruit. This makes the transcription more urgent.

Abbreviating the action of the book (since I've set the scene), John arrives, tries (without much success) to convert the inhabitants of Pentexore to Christianity, talks with most of them, but is repulsed by Hagia because she has to walk around with her breasts exposed since, well, her eyes are in them and she couldn't see otherwise. Hagia is intrigued by him and volunteers to go on a quest with him to find the tomb of St. Thomas. A few other assorted characters join the quest.

So Valente has created for us a world which is real and wonderful and described in lots of lovely figurative language. Sorry about the amount of summary above, but it's difficult to discuss this book without some degree of explanation. (You get all the explanation you need in the text; I never had any trouble understanding what Valente was talking about, because her descriptions were nothing if not complete.) But I said I had some mixed emotions. Here's why:

(1) Not much happens in terms of plot. The book is fairly short (only 269 pages), and what with all the sections describing the monks' transcriptions, and all the similes and metaphors, there's just not much room for a complex plot. I felt the flow of action was much smoother in the second half of the book, during the quest, whereas at the beginning, everything was still being set up and described and there were a lot of vignettes that told you something about the world without contributing to the actual story.

(2) Character development was a little flat. I thought Hagia the blemmye was fully realized, and sympathetic, but I thought John was one-dimensional and a bit of a jerk. While we see two versions of Imtithal in the story, I just don't feel we got to know her as well. All we get of Hiob is that he's a monk who feels guilty over some attachments he's formed in the past (and who seems genuinely interested in scholarship and languages).

All that being said, I would recommend reading The Habitation of the Blessed. It is short, and contains many unusual and original ideas and beautiful descriptions, and is quite different from much of the other fantasy I've read. I think this is a 4.5 star book for me (so rounding up to 5).
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1 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on May 10, 2013
Catherynne M. Valente has written some interesting (if nothing else) books, and I've stuck with her through some strange digressions, but with "The Habitation of the Blessed" (Night Shade, $14.99, 272 pages), she's lost me.

"The Habitation of the Blessed" is billed as volume one in A Dirge for Prester John, and it's a sometimes grotesque, always unsettling novel set in a fantasy land where all the weird variations on humanity that ancient writers could imagine are all too real. For example, one of the three narrators is a blemmyae, which is a human being with no head, but eyes on her breasts and a mouth in her stomach. There are people with one eye, eyes all around their heads, huge ears (another narrator), huge hands, and so on.

Valente's choice of Prester John as the third narrator furthers her thematic, philosophic idea of the word being made flesh, for Prester John was a mythical king of a Central Asian empire. He was also a follower of Nestorius, one of the many early Christian thinkers who wrestled with the notion of how exactly a transcendent God manifested Himself in a particular human body - or, to put it another way, precisely how did the Word of God become human flesh.

Valente beats this conceit to death with her various characters, who are flesh made from words of other humans, and does so in a book with little uplift - it is, after all, part of a dirge - and not much payoff. In short, though I've recommended her earlier works, "The Habitation of the Blessed" is where I get off the bus. But if you really loved "Palimpsest" and the two volumes of The Orphan's Tales," this one might be worth a shot. But remember, I warned you.
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on February 5, 2013
This is a weird book. Really really weird. In fact, at the start, it was just too over the top for me and I almost gave up on it. I'm glad I didn't because it turned out to be an incredibly lyrical and compelling story. It got even weirder, but as I progressed, I accepted all that and went along for the amazingly fantastical journey. I won't bother going over the plot and characters, since other reviewers have done a far better job of that than I could do.

But I will add my only slightly reserved recommendation for this unusual book. It will NOT appeal to everyone, that's for sure. But if you're willing to expand your imagination you might have a lot of fun with it.
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on July 20, 2012
Mysteriously, I received Habitation of the Blessed on my Kindle, although the website does not show that option. That was the start of my mystical journey through the storyscape of Catherynne Valente in which a quest for Christian validation becomes a multi-layered encounter with alternatives of thought, being, and meaning. If you are a literalist, a lover of concrete story, a keeper of dogma, a linear thinker, . . . better to read something else. But if your heart, mind, and spirit finds meaning in the edges, the possibilities, all-that-is without need for name, the ineffable dreams, then you will want to live in this journey.

Language this rich, full of analogy, metaphor, and mystical beauty feels luxuriant. . . while I was in the pages I felt like the title referred to me, and that the book was my habitation, and I was the blessed.

And to wonder early and often, is this an account of what is already, or what is not yet?

Immortality as responsibility (even grief) as opposed to release and reward. Sacred promises of one faith tradition the common-place expectations of all species in another tradition. Anthro-centrism challenged by the humanity of some many non-humans, and the inhumanity of so many humans.

This is a book which I can hope will be made into a movie and which I hope will not be made into a movie -- operatic in its scope, it deserves more than the printed page (image screen), but how could any one director express the universals adequately?

For now, it plays on the screen of my soul, over and over again, rewriting itself into my own story.
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on February 21, 2012
I have read a number of Valente's books and absolutely adored them. Like her previous books this book was beautifully written with excellent imagery. The book is told from four viewpoints and was a bit harder for me to read than previous books. As such, it was probably my least favorite book of hers to date, that being said it was still incredibly creative and beautifully written.

Brother Hiob of Luzerne stumbles upon a tree that sprouts books instead of fruit while working at a missionary in the Himalayans. He is allowed to pluck three books from the tree. The first is written by Prester John himself and tells of Prester's journey into magical lands. The second is written by Prester's wife Hagia; an immortal who carries her face on her chest and has no head. The third is a collection of nursery tales by a being named Imtithal who was a nanny.

This book has a lot of what I have come to love from Valente; crazily creative creatures and descriptions that come alive to the reader, beautiful writing that is incredibly rich and weaves wonderfully magical pictures, and tons of mythological references. The story alternates between Brother Hiob, Prester John, Hagia, and Imtithal. As such it progresses slowly and has more of a plodding mythological and somewhat religious tone to it than previous works.

I enjoyed hearing from Brother Hiob who had to alternate his reading because each of the books he pulled off of the tree started rotting as soon as he plucked them off. As such he becomes obsessed with reading these stories before they rot. I also enjoyed Prester John's viewpoint as he stumbles into a magical and wonderful land after crossing a sea of sand. Although Prester John's very catholic religious viewpoints are a bit tiresome at times, it is interesting to see how this new land reacts to his very orthodox viewpoint.

I also enjoyed Hagia's viewpoint. She is immortal and is a blemmye (has no head, but her face is on her torso). She falls in love with Prester John. Although most of her accounts are about her various lives and loves and it is isn't until later in the book she meets with Prester John.

I did not enjoy the sections by Imtithal as much. Imtithal has three children she takes care of and is a being with huge ears that can enfold her whole body. You don't really know how she is related to Prester John until much later in the story. Imtithal tells a number of creation myths to her young charges. I had trouble connecting these with the other parts of the story and constantly had to work on focusing on the stories because my mind would start to wander. I just couldn't relate to the stories or relate them to the overall book.

This book is a slow read. The writing is incredibly beautiful and well done, but you need to take time to read it and really pay attention to understand what is going on. There is a lot of ambiguity here. The constantly switching viewpoints makes the story progress slowly and presents more of a puzzle that the reader needs to piece together than a cohesive story. It is masterfully done, but slow to read.

Overall I really enjoyed this book and continue to enjoy Valente's beautiful writing and the absolutely crazy and wacky creatures and worlds that she weaves. This book was a slow read and one you really need to pay attention to and think about while you read. I wasn't crazy about the changing viewpoints and the way you had to piece the story together. I also had some trouble relating Imtithal's sections to the rest of the story. If you are a fan of mythology and beautiful writing and don't mind some ambiguity I can definitely recommend this to you. I didn't find it to be quite as magical and wonderful as previous books I have read by Valente, but it was still very well done.
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0 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on January 6, 2012
It arrived fast and in great condition, was a present for my daughter
because she reads books from that Author.
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on September 3, 2011
This is a truly wonderful story, engaging and wise, lyrical and magical. I've just completed my second listening of it, and Ralph Lister's reading adds considerably to the richness and charm of the novel itself. Like the land it purports to tell of, the story is so full of wonders that one's mind is sometimes stopped, so touching and fantastic are the revelations. I haven't had such a satisfying reading/listening experience since first discovering John Crowley's Little, Big. I'm very glad that this is only volume 1.
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on August 16, 2011
Narrated by Ralph Lister for Brilliance Audio, Valente begins the series A Dirge for Prester John with The Habitation of the Blessed, my pick for the best of November 2010 in new science fiction and fantasy releases at John is a legendary church figure whose letters to Constantinople told of a rich, magical land of which he had become king. Here, Lister brings the three principle storylines to vibrant life as they weave in and around each other. This is not an easy book or audiobook: new words are thrown at you without much reference or warning; fantastical creatures enough to fill a taxonomy are introduced and paraded around a time and land that just doesn't make sense. But why should it? After all, it is anti-Aristotelian. If you plant a book, a book tree will grow.
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on May 2, 2011
The Habitation of the Blessed is a complex work full of rich language and many themes.

The book consists of four interwoven storylines. In one, a Byzantine monk confesses his "sins" of thought and deed during the transcribing of the other three. The three books he plucks from a miraculous tree are an autobiography of Prester John, another of his wife, and a collection of stories told to the children of an ancient queen of Prester John's country.

It's difficult to decide what to mention without ruining surprises for other readers. The three storylines from the tree intertwine considerably. Some of the same events are witnessed by the authors, and the storybook contains tales that forewarn us what the subjects of the other two tomes have coming to them.

The book is full of the poetic language and keen observation I expect from Ms. Valente's work. In HotB, she has not yet found that balance between beauty and accessibility that she struck so well in Deathless, but the text isn't truly difficult, either.

Students of classical or Medieval history will recognize themes, myths, legends and fantastic creatures. The historical (and legendary) structure around the Letter of Prester John makes an excellent framework from which to hang this novel's themes.
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0 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on March 29, 2011
I have the perfect phrase to describe what sort of a story The Habitation of the Blessed is.

Unfortunately, it's already taken.

I mean, if I told you that Catherynne Valente has written a wonderful work of "medieval fantasy", you'd probably think I was talking about something like a book with an elf, a dwarf, and a thief, and a wizard who meet in a tavern and go on a quest. Maybe not quite that cliched, but you'd probably be picturing something that bears the same sort of resemblance to the medieval world as Tales of MU resembles the modern one: a sort of post-Tolkien Disneyland version of the past that is not so much the medieval era as the classical era through the renaissance blended in the same fashion that dinosaur movies take anything that appeared from the Triassic period through the Cretaceous, with the occasional random insertion of modern man.

And while I enjoy that genre, it's a shame, because really "medieval fantasy" really sums up what she's done. Can we just agree to call that other stuff something else? Post-Tolkien? Gygaxian? Swords and dungeons? Dragons and sorcery? Well, it's probably too late to change it, so I'm going to grab a contrast term and call the first book of A Dirge For Prester John a work of authentically Pre-Tolkien fantasy.

Writing a Pre-Tolkien fantasy is an impressive feat given that it was written three decades after Tolkien's death. She clearly goes to the same well that John Ronald Reul and his friend Clive Staples and their predecessor Lyman Frank drew from, but it's equally clear that she's gone back to the well rather than siphoning off from their troughs.

If you're the sort of person who loved reading tidbits from medieval bestiaries and then later enjoyed spotting when something from one of those books turned up in a D&D manual or with a pseudoscientific epxlanation in Shadowrun or in some other game or bit of pop culture, this book will almost certainly speak to you.

If among your favorite part of the Chronicles of Narnia books were the recitations of all the various kinds of creatures that were found on one side of a battlefield or another and you wish there had been more detail, more examination of their cultures and their ways, then this book will almost certainly interest you.

If you've never had much exposure to mythical beasts outside of their pop culture interpretations, but you enjoy a good tale of a traveler who stumbles off the edge of the map and ends up somewhere fantastic in every sense of the word... be it Oz, Narnia, Pelucidar, Barsoom, the Land of the Lost, or anywhere else, this book would be worth your while.

And if you're not particularly interested in any of those things, but you enjoy a good tale that is well told?

Yeah. That this is.

If you already know who Prester John is... or who he was... or maybe who he was not... then there's a good chance your curiosity is already piqued at least a little bit. For everybody else... well, the wiki link will cover the basics for you.

The story of Prester John as laid out in the canonical letter is a fascinating one, but it's compelling in part because there's so little to it. We are given the bare bones. They are big bones. They are impressive bones. They spark the imagination, but it takes a powerful and skilled imagination to flesh them out in a manner that is equally compelling to the sight of the bones laying bare in the earth.

And one need only look at how our understanding of the dinosaurs has evolved over the years to know that how bones are arranged and how the meat is hung around them can make quite a difference. This would be little more than fan faction if Cat had simply taken the letter and used it as a checklist. There is a story here, an original story... well, this is a Catherynne Valente novel, isn't it? It would be uncharacteristically mean of her to give us <em>one</em> story. (And yet it could be argued that she does exactly this, depending upon where one falls on the question of the Trinity.) And in the process she piles living flesh around those dormant bones in such a compelling fashion that it's possible to forget the bones are there. She's not playing connect-the-dots by dropping in references here and there. She's giving us the sort of breathtaking world... the sort of breathtaking lived experience... that could have prompted someone to write the letter that inspired her story.

In fact, one gets the impression that there isn't a single line or even a word of the letter that did not excite the author's imagination. When telling the story behind the letter, Cat doesn't assume that every line in it is the unvarnished truth, but that every word is there for a reason. There are both white AND red lions, John says. Does that mean lions come in two colors? No, it means lions come in two kinds, and the difference must be significant enough to be worth spending an extra three words in an era far less given to effortless expansion than our own electronic age.

This kind of attention to detail...and what she does with it... is the sort of thing that will keep you turning pages and leave you eager for the next book.
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