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The Habitation of the Blessed: A Dirge for Prester John, Volume One

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Overview

This is the story of a place that never was: the kingdom of Prester John, the utopia described by an anonymous, twelfth-century document which 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, ...

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Overview

This is the story of a place that never was: the kingdom of Prester John, the utopia described by an anonymous, twelfth-century document which 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 eighteenth 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.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
In 1165, a letter ostensibly written by the distant Christian king Prester John describing a kingdom of wonders rocked medieval Europe. In this enchanting retelling of the legend, the first volume in a projected trilogy, Hugo nominee Valente (Palimpsest) imagines what might have been discovered by Rome's ambassadors if the letter had not been a hoax. Nothing is quite as fabulous as the pious priests had hoped. Prester John and St. Thomas the Twin married nonhuman women; the Fountain of Youth does not sparkle, but instead "oozes thick and oily, globbed with algae and the eggs of improbable mayflies." Three very different personalities narrate: the brooding Prester John himself; his carefree and openhearted wife, the blemmye Hagia; and maternal Imtithal of the elephant-eared panotii. Filled with lyrical prose and fabled creatures, this languorous fairy tale is as captivating as Prester John's original letter. (Dec.)
Library Journal
In 1699, Brother Hiob of Luzern travels to the East as a missionary and comes upon proof of the existence of the legendary holy man Prester John and his fabled kingdom. From a tree that produces books rather than fruit, Hiob harvests three volumes, one penned by John himself. As Hiob uncovers more details of the holy man's life, he learns disturbing truths about both Prester John and himself. The award-winning author of Palimpset and "The Orphan's Tales" series begins a new series depicting the extraordinary lives of two men, separated by centuries but united by their ability to experience the wonder of the world. VERDICT Valente's latest novel contains the richness and inscrutability of fable and allegory, infusing her storytelling with a lyrical intensity reminiscent of the literature of India and the Middle East. For select audiences.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781597801997
  • Publisher: Night Shade Books
  • Publication date: 11/23/2010
  • Series: Dirge for Prester John Series , #1
  • Pages: 352
  • Sales rank: 460,969
  • Product dimensions: 5.50 (w) x 8.40 (h) x 0.80 (d)

Meet the Author

Catherynne M. Valente began September’s adventures in installments on the Web; the project won legions of fans and also the CultureGeek Best Web Fiction of the Decade award. She lives with her husband on an island off the coast of Maine. She has written many novels for adults, but this is her children’s book debut.
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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3
( 219 )
Rating Distribution

5 Star

(61)

4 Star

(35)

3 Star

(30)

2 Star

(30)

1 Star

(63)

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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 219 Customer Reviews
  • Posted May 2, 2011

    A beautiful book that leaves plenty of questions for later

    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.

    20 out of 20 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted May 4, 2011

    more from this reviewer

    Flawless.

    I do not know where to start in talking about this book.

    I suppose I should start with the fact that I choked up in every single on of Hagia's sections, and half of Imtithal's. This is partly because I am a sap, but mostly because this book (and this trilogy, given the foreshadowing) is about a fall from paradise, about the elves going off to the Grey Havens, about the horrible inevitableness of the change you don't see coming. And that atmosphere hangs over every passage of those two narratives, infusing them with an exquisite sense of loss.

    Three narratives, actually, because Hiob's framing narrative is also imbued with that grief, though at a remove.

    There are four narratives, by the way -- the three previously mentioned and that of John the Priest. That complexity of structure is typical of Valente's novels (at least the four I have now read); she weaves together disparate narratives better than any author I have ever read, ignoring linearity in favor of thematic resonance. So Hiob says "I have boys to scribed for me now -- for I have often and in secret thought that it is boys' work, to copy and not to compose, to parrot, and not to proclaim" and four pages later Hagia writes "I have been all my life a scribe. . . But in the end. . . I attempt, with clumsy but earnest need, to compose and not to copy. . ." Characters echo one anothers' thoughts without knowing, and their actions are mirrored or reversed to throw light on the sorts of people they are.

    This is the sort of book that rewards careful reading, and punishes any lack of attention or attempt to skim.

    John's narrative, at first, does not seem to fit with the other three. It is the most chronological, mostly confining itself to whatever events it is relating rather than musing on what came later (though John does do a little of this sort of foreshadowing); it is also the most surreal, and the first section when he is adrift on the sea of sand is downright hard to figure out, because we don't yet have enough knowledge of the world to know what is real and what is metaphor. But that discordant note is a very carefully measured choice on Valente's part.

    John is the catalyst, the thing that, when added to Hagia's delicately balanced world, changes the world rather than being changed itself. That's why when he finally is mirrored it's by Thomas, another Christian who stumbled into paradise, with vastly different results.

    And Hagia is. . . absolutely the most perfect challenge her world casts against John. The book is incredibly sensual -- far more sensual than Palimpsest, which was all about sex. Each of the men of the Church is confronted with the world of the body he thought he left behind: Thomas by Imtithal's physical affection; Hiob by the fragrant, liquid rot that worked against him in his task of copying; and John by Hagia, with her eyes where her nipples should be, at the tips of abundant breasts, and totally comfortable in that body. The tension in the book comes from those challenges, even though we already know who ends up the victor.

    To bring a long rambling squee to the point, every moment of this novel is perfectly constructed, every choice deliberately calculated to further the story being told. Because of this (not despite it) it is deeply moving. The best thing I read last year was Valente's two-volume The Orphan's Tales; so far this year, it is definitely The Habitation of the Blessed.

    15 out of 16 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 28, 2011

    Gorgeous

    I've heard Cat Valente read the beginning of this and it's a mesmerizing tale that is a stunning literary work, but also has lovely small, personal bits in it. I particularly liked the kids at the beginning.

    Totally worth discovering - I learnt so much without every feeling like I was being taught!

    7 out of 7 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted October 28, 2011

    Another Great Offering

    Honestly, I'm not as eloquent as the other reviewers down there, but I already own a hard copy of this book and picked it up for my Nook anyway. Read it and enjoy it, or don't. But at least give it a try.

    6 out of 8 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted October 28, 2011

    Excellent story, wonderfully written.

    Habitation of the Blessed is a wonderful book. The writing makes you want to savor every word. Catherynne Valente just keeps getting better and better.

    3 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 28, 2011

    Another great story!

    Cat Valente is an incredible storyteller. I have always enjoyed everything I've read of hers and this one will not disappoint!

    3 out of 7 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted October 30, 2011

    Always Free

    I have downloaded Free Friday books weeks later and they are still ""FREE"". When I first rec'd my NOOK I actually went back and downloaded a great deals of the free friday books and was not charged for any of them. This was up to a year after some of them had been offered!! I love free fridays, it gives people like me who are strapped on finances a way to enjoy wonderful books that I would otherwise never have the opportunity to read. Thank you B&N!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    2 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted March 6, 2012

    Fairy Tale for grownups

    This book was a "Free Friday" pick for me sometime ago. After reading several of the reviews, good and bad, I finally decided to give it a try. I am about halfway through now but that is only because I am savoring it! Although I am quite sure I will read this delightful tale again, there is nothing like the "first" read. Ms. Valente style of writing is truly unique and I am convinced her imagination has no bounds. This book will not be for everyone, you will either absolutely love it or never bother to finish it. But I do urge you to at least give it a taste...
    As for myself I have already added several of her other books to my nook wish list!

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 30, 2011

    awful!

    waste of time

    1 out of 9 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted October 29, 2011

    Wonderful! - like Italo Calvino on steroids

    Just started reading, but want to get this in before its Free Friday is over - and unlike some other reviewers below claim, I have never found charges for Free Friday books, and find them still available - and free - on Saturdays.

    Anyway, get this if you are at all intelligent and enjoy books whose authors assume you are!

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 28, 2011

    Like free fridays

    Read books that I would not try if they were not free. I agree, if you don't like it don't download it!

    1 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 28, 2011

    FREE!!!!!!!!!

    I love free friday!!!!!!!!

    1 out of 7 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 29, 2011

    Never charged

    I always download the free books after 11:00 pm and have never been charged.

    1 out of 6 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 23, 2014

    So nonsensical It's boring.

    Whoever wrote this needs to learn how to write a story. I had no idea What was going on in any given moment. Who are all these creatures and people? I have no idea. Whats the story with the book tree. I kept rereading paragraphs thinking I had missed some explanation from the author....but no. The author writes as if we all know what he is talking about...and we don't. Don't believe me? Read the rest of the reviews below. They say much the same thing as I am saying. It's like the mumblings of a schizophrenic. Hopefully he reads these review and learns something from them. This could have been a decent book if the author had a point. Wish i could e-return this for e-store credit.

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  • Posted November 11, 2012

    more from this reviewer

    huh

    not sure what to think

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 20, 2012

    It went on and on and on, I kept expecting something interesting to happen.

    It never did. This book is all prologue, you keep expecting the interesting stuff to start, because the buildup is so good, but it just keeps on in a dreamy fashion, drifting aimlessly. I gave up reading it.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 13, 2012

    way out there

    I guess I just didn't get it. It was very hard to follow and at times I just gave up on reading it.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 15, 2012

    Reads like a Dali painting...

    A very strange piece of historical fiction. It's surreal, and reads like you're slowly watching a Dali painting form. It isn't until about halfway through that things began to take a more cohesive shape.

    It's four different narrative texts strung together in a slightly manic cohesion. A vivid, and interesting, world is painted here, but the style of writing leaves a little to be desired. I almost wish this were done in a more traditional sense, instead of trying to come across as someone writing down works that someone else wrote down first... more dialogue to get a better sense of character would have been good.

    Definitely will be checking out the second book in the future, at least. It's a wonderful world that has been created here.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Posted December 18, 2011

    Terrible.

    I liked the overview so I was very interested in reading this. I could'nt even finish it! I pride myself on finishing all books, but I couldn't make heads or tails out of this book. It was very confusing. I wouldn't waste my time, much better books out there!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 14, 2011

    All Art...

    It is clear that Ms. Valente is a better writer than most authors can dream of being, and she has the awards to prove it. Hers is the kind of prose that critics call literate, lyrical, and evocative. And yet...

    While I adore fantasy and folklore, and wanted to like this book, I found it very easy to put down, and hard to pick back up. The author certainly has virtuosity to burn, but it seemed to me that the story was ultimately all art and no substance. Her characters arenot particularly sympathetic; the setting and inhabitants, while exquisitely described, do not provide interesting twists or insights beyond the medieval bestiaries whence they originated; the interweaving stories, while linking in intricate ways, do not form a compelling plot. It's odd that this degree of perfection can be without a soul, while lesser writers can capture a reader's heart and imagination. It seems as if the author's substantial gift is getting in the way of her storytelling.

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
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