By Catherynne M. Valente.
In the gardens of the Sultan lives a girl with dark eyes, eyes bordered about with secrets. She says that a spirit has written tales in those lines and that once she tells them the spirit will return and judge her. This book is half of her story; the other half is In the Cities of Coin and Spice, not yet released.
This book is strongly reminiscent of the 1001 Arabian Nights due to the way the stories are framed and the exotic atmosphere. Valente's imagination produces living Stars, shape-shifters, evil wizards, centaur-kings, and pumpkin trees, to mention but a few. The stories the girl tells unfold like Russian dolls: the witch the prince meets tells a story of her grandmother, who tells a story of the Wolf-Star she met long ago, who tells a story of her dead sisters... and gradually the threads weave together to form one single story, told in many pieces. I suspect this is one of those books where reading twice is part of the design.
So what's wrong with it? Blood, sex, murder, necromancy, mutilation, cruelty and callous hearts, even a place where patricide is elevated to "religion": ugly deeds couched in beautiful language. Despite points of humor and even good things that occasionally happen, these stories are, in the balance, very dark.
Although there is another volume to come, I find that I cannot recommend this one on its own merit. There are some wonderful quotes and a fantastic, exotic atmosphere, but very few wonderful moments.