This is the story of a place that never was: the kingdom of Prester John, the utopia described by an anonymous, 12th-century document that 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 18th 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.
©2010 Catherynne M. Valente (P)2010 Brilliance Audio, Inc.
I think it's important that the reader/listener read the history of the Prester John legend, in order to understand how the story works. Go to Catherynne Valente's website and at least skim through Prester John's letter. This is the story of WHAT IF the Prester John legend were real? How would it have played out?
I also think it's vital to understand that the story is narrated by Brother Hiob, and that he is copying 3 different and parallel stories from the Tree of Books. One is the story of Prester John himself, one is John's wife, and the 3rd is the nanny of Queen Abir's children.
The narrator reads the book beautifully. However, I had a very hard time following the audio version. There were many new words I couldn't understand or spell, and there was no way to go back to figure them out. I've listened to many audiobooks, and this was one of the hardest I've tried to listen to (Dante being the most difficult). I actually had to buy the written version of the book to try to clarify the language.
Once, however, I finally caught on to the story, the language, the creatures, I was captivated by the story and didn't want to stop listening to it. It was a disappointment that this was just the first of a trilogy and I'm anxious to continue the story.
I read a bunch of glowing reviews for this book. Valente writes some really spectacular prose, gorgeous and crystalline. However, some of the creatures are just distracting, and prevent you from focusing on what's going on. I think she loved the bar scene in the first Star Wars movie, and wanted to create some of her own creatures. She could have benefitted by better editing that sharpened up the story some.
We read this for book club, and several folks couldn't get far enought to finish it. There also had to be some meanings behind some of the creatures, but we couldn't figure some of them out.
It could have been a 5 star book with better editing, but it was still interesting, like traveling to Wonderland!
I'm a voracious audiobibliophile, mainly interested in speculative fiction, with the occasional mimetic fiction or non-fiction title sneaking in.
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 Audible.com. 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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