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The Labyrinth Hardcover – April 17, 2006
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From Publishers Weekly
In Valente's surreal, image-driven first novel, centered on the Greek myth of the Minotaur, a female Theseus details the bizarre landscape of the Minotaur's maze and its unique flora and fauna. These include a wisdom-dispensing monkey guide, a mystery-solving "Meaningful Lobster" straight out of Lewis Carroll and numerous other creatures who evoke works of classic fantasy and mythology. The pursuing entities in the claustrophobic maze-world are not the bull-headed monsters of legend but doorways to other dimensions, which the characters spend much of their time avoiding. Most of the action is internal, as characters swap life stories, exchange experiences and try to solve their way out of puzzles philosophically. The author's poetic prose simmers with paraphrases from Blake, Milton, Shakespeare and other literary heavyweights, and this often gives her descriptions stimulating depth and richness. Sometimes, though, her sentences groan under the weight of images awkwardly layered and fused to express the unique chaos of this private universe. Readers who luxuriate in the telling of a tale and savor phrases where every word has significance will enjoy the challenge of this fantasy. Others may find its maze of language an impenetrable mystery.
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This book tells the story of a girl stuck in a Labyrinth. She is a Wanderer and wanders through the Labyrinth fighting madness the whole way. She complete various tasks and meets strange creatures all in a quest to escape the Labyrinth. She is constantly trying to outrun Doors, that threaten to devour here.
This book reads like a crazy dream. At some times you get caught up the beautiful and poignant descriptions and loose the storyline for a bit, but Valente always tugs you back to the story at hand. I can't say enough how beautiful, artistic, and wonderfully abstract the language throughout this novel is; I absolutely loved it.
There are times where you can get a bit confused about what is happening, most of these times coincide with the dream-like periods of madness that the main character goes through. The first madness period had me befuddled, but after the second bit of madness I figured out what was going on and then was struck by how cleverly Valente is representing this character's insanity. The story snaps back to a more traditional form as the character meets up with and is forced to converse with various strange creatures in the Labyrinth. These portions of the story are written just as beautifully but less abstractly and take the reader through a more traditional fairy tale like plot.
I was struck by how this story reminded me both of The Jabberwocky (in the somewhat made-up words that were used throughtou) and also of Alice in Wonderland (as the main character struggles through a world that doesn't make sense).
I love different things and beautifully dark stories and this book was both of those things in spades. That is not to say this story will be for everyone. If you don't like poetry or abstractness in your stories I wouldn't read this book. A lot of the story is woven of analogies and words that don't make clear-cut sense. If you are the type of person who likes absolutes and well-defined stories and characters this probably won't be your cup of tea. I can see how this story and the writing style would be just plain too strange for some folks.
Overall a beautiful, creative, and different read that I found to be exquisite. Valente is quickly turning into one of those authors that can do no wrong in my eyes. I feel like everything I read from her is strange, wonderful and absolute golden.
I'm not sure there's anything I can say about Catherynne M. Valente's writing that I haven't already said. Which gives the irony of Valente's first novel being my fifth review of her work a little extra added piquancy. Here's a fresh, new voice in fiction, and I've already told you all about how great that fresh new voice is in my reviews of Yume No Hon: The Book of Dreams (her second novel) and The Grass-Cutting Sword (her third). Yeah, I didn't get round to reading this one till later, more fool me.
This one gives us a nameless narrator (often compared to Alice in Wonderland, though by my estimation it's the Alice of American McGee's videogame or Svankmajer's brilliant film, not the one originally concocted by Carroll) trapped in a labyrinth-- of her own devising? One can never tell-- and the oddments she meets as she traverses it. It's a quest narrative, but a quest narrative turned quite on its head, where the hero doesn't have any inkling of the goal, the collected detritus of the meetings with helpful entities seems to have no value whatsoever, and no good deed goes unpunished. It's a tough life.
The plot, though, is not the reason to read this, as it never is with a Valente novel; you read Valente for the richness of the writing, the startling images that somehow never stretch the bounds of believability no matter how outrageous they get, the tempering and tweaking of old stories and mythic types that have been begging for such for centuries, if only we could hear it. Valente is one of those who can, and should be revered for same. *****