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The Habitation of the Blessed is a sort of historical fantasy, and at the same time a straight fantasy, and at the same time a riff on history.  As a "lapsed Classicist", it is clear where the attention to stylistic detail and use of historical events stem from; and Valente's other fictional output demonstrates the concern for, and interest in, fable and fairy tale that acts as the other major thread throughout this novel, with great intersectionality between them.

There are four chief characters of the novel, each of them a writer and storyteller. Hiob, a monk searching for the land of Prester John, is an old man, and defined by his faith in God, as well as his thirst for knowledge.  Portrayed sympathetically, although not without problems - Valente's presentation of faith and the faithful is not entirely informed by lived experience (convictions shift and hypocrisy is a theme throughout, for both Hiob and John) - Hiob is witty and readable, as well as being an interesting guide to what is happening.  Prester John himself is a priggish, stubborn priest, devout and yet odd; the characterisation here shows some of the same problems as with Hiob's, with the issue of faith, being so central to John's character, coming out even more strongly as the faith is foregrounded.  The other problem is that he is so unrooted; despite at times being deeply rooted in Byzantine concerns, he seems simultaneously to be apart from and looking down on those self-same concerns, making him a character without a culture.

The other two characters are both Pentexorians, and more different than the priestly characters are from each other.  Hagia is largely a character to provide an alternative, non-Christian perspective on John to his own, and this is a slightly problematic enterprise, insofar as it makes a female character subservient narratively to him whilst making the claim not to; Imtithal, however, is a beautiful, powerful character, strong and well-written, strange and odd yet tender and sweet.  A tale-crafter herself, this perhaps influences the degree to which her character is rounded out, since she seems in many ways to be similar to Valente herself (with the maternal love and universalised love turned up to 11); and she is perhaps the strongest character here.

The plots are intertwined by the nature of the telling, and all are equally well-written.  There's not a word wasted and the linkage between each, subtle and obvious by turns, is brilliantly conveyed; the fact that we know the end of each of the tales is nodded towards and referred to with varying degrees of subtlety and interest, but it doesn't take away the compulsion to read the book because the real hero is not a character or even a plot point, but the writing style.  Valente's style changes with each character but retains a certain lyricism and whimsy to it in each transition, a sense of powerful fun but also powerful seriousness and emotion, that charges the reader to take the book seriously whilst also drawing the reader on to follow the sentences into paragraphs into a novel.

The whole thing comes together well, but individual elements do suffer; whilst I greatly enjoyed The Habitation of the Blessed, and it has made me wonder about Valente's other work (something Palimpsest near-decisively put me off), it is not a flawless novel, by any stretch of the imagination...

EDIT TO ADD: For me, one of the greatest delights of this novel was the combined use of my academic interests in theology and ancient history - the Byzantine background of Prester John, whilst underplayed, does have some interesting elements at the start of the novel (and the ongoing iconoclasm references); equally, certain figures from ancient history - Herododos and Alisaunder - have brilliant, brief appearances which give fantastic, historically accurate (to a degree) and characterful references to the past. A very nice touch from the lapsed classicist to those who aren't so lapsed.


reading, books
Daniel Franklin


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