A mysterious orphaned girl lives by herself on the garden of a Middle Eastern-esque palace, shunned by the nobility and considered a witch due to the black birthmarks around her eyes. A boy, son of the Sultan, manages to find out her secret: in the marks are written stories, which the girl agrees to narrate. Thus begins the Framing Device to The Orphan's Tales, a fantasy book in two volumes (In the Night Garden and The Cities of Coin and Spice) by Catherynne M. Valente. What follows is a complex plot that, heavily inspired by several fairy tales and the Arabian Nights, includes most of the tropes related to those stories and subverts, deconstructs or lampshades most of them along the way.
The Orphan's Tales provides examples of:
Aerith and Bob: Characters have names with Middle Eastern, Scandinavian, Indian, African, Japanese, Eastern European, Greek, English and many other influences. Bonus points need to be given to Ragnhild and St. Sigrid, two women from Middle Eastern inspired cultures who have Scandinavian-sounding names.
Affably Evil: The Leucrotta is actually a fairly nice guy, if you don't try to fight him. Even then, he'd mostly kill you because that's his role in the story, not because he actually dislikes you.
All Myths Are True: A great deal of the monsters and humanoid races in the books is based on something that Earth scholars once believed (mostly classical and medieval.) Firebirds, manticores, and fox-women are only the most well-known.
Always Save the Girl: Eyvind sets out to defy all his country's laws and traditions to be with the girl he loves. He even changes his species. In the end he estranges himself for decades from everyone he knew and loved in the hopes of being reunited with her.
And the Adventure Continues: The story ends with Aerie, Lantern, Solace, Scald, and Sleeve showing up to embrace Sorrow as her family. The prince is sad, as he thinks his role in the story is over... until Sorrow reaches out to him, asking him to join her on her future adventures, and he follows her with great enthusiasm.
Ape Shall Never Kill Ape: No Star has ever killed another Star, according to the Harpoon-Star. He can't bring himself to even Mercy Kill his sisters' handmaidens, when they beg him for death.
The Atoner: Leander's story almost entirely revolves around him attempting to bring back to life Aerie, who he foolishly killed. Later, it shifts to being about avenging Knife and Aerie, who have been wronged by his father.
The Sirens in book four are also atoners. They used to sing happily on their rocky island, but they didn't realize that their beautiful voices drew sailors to founder and drown on their shores. After they discover this, they leave their island, vow to never sing again, and become dancer/calligraphers.
Be Careful What You Wish For: Leander wants an adventure when he sneaks out of the palace. He comes to regret it. The idea is also expressed in this trope:
"“Children make prayers so thoughtlessly, building them up like sand castles—and they are always surprised when suddenly the castle becomes real, and the iron gate grinds shut."
Beauty to Beast: Magadin, and the Wizard's other victims, have been turned into monsters over the course of their confinement, although she retains her pretty face, at least. But after Knife sets her free, she learns to love her monstrousness.
The subjects of Marrow were turned from ordinary humans (although ones altering themselves with plastic surgery in bizarre ways) into Pra-Iti, ungainly and ugly beings with hideous long necks and stomachs of diamond.
The Yi. They can’t understand why people may be terrified by seeing of their dead loved ones, walking amongst them again. They seem to be offended by the law that forces them to wear distinguishing clothes.
The Gaselli. There's nothing wrong with eating people but it is an abomination to eat sheep or goats, because they look after the sheep and goats.
Blood Magic: Starlight is really the blood of the sky and can be used to perform some kinds of magic, like ShapeShifting.
Body Surf: The Yi possess the bodies of the dead, but the bodies that they use inevitably end up decaying and becoming unusable. There is also a necromancer who learns this art from the Man Dressed in the Moon. Because he isn't Yi bodies he inhabits don't decay the same way bodies inhabited by Yi do.
Brainless Beauty: Magadin’s stepsisters are described as very beautiful, but also not too bright.
Creation Myth: The proper "creation of the world" myth is told early in the first book, the story of how the Mare appeared out of the blackness, created the Stars, and created the world and all who live there. Lesser creation stories that line the pages involve the creation of a ship-tree, of a human bloodline that gains magic power from Star-blood, of the city of Shadukiam and the City of Marrow, and in fact, the series ends up culminating the story of how one girl came to be born.
Cryptically Unhelpful Answer/ Non-Answer: Found in the epilogue. Sorrow asks Aerie why she didn't come to Sorrow sooner, why did she leave Sorrow alone to suffer in the Garden? The closest Aerie gets to answering is "The world is wide, and the raising of children is a delicate matter." Helpful stuff.
Curse: Golod, He Who Swallows, is an embodiment of hunger and devours the city of Marrow, where they had boasted that they "ate all things" and prized nothing but money, food, and riches. Subverted interestingly, in that Golod himself claims that he isn't some kind of cosmic punishment, but that he only set to devouring Marrow-That-Was because it seemed interesting and delicious.
Dangerous Sixteenth Birthday: Sigrid is kidnapped by pirates when she is sixteen. It's lampshaded as "the age at which such catastrophes of serendipity occur."
Double Standard: Rape, Divine on Mortal: Aukon fell in love with a mortal girl and took her without her consent. He additionally changed her shape for these of a cow and put her in the sky to keep her all for himself. Subverted since he was finally punish for this by his sister Aukai.
The Dulcinea Effect: Applies to Zmeya, to an extent (people who hear her tale tend to grow obsessed by it), but more pertinently, applied to the tales themselves. To name one example, Scald is ready to abandon her entire race and protect the city of Ajanabh at all costs, just after spending a night listening to Ajanabh residents tell their stories. seems to be a deliberate pattern, but the girl only says, "The tales have a great magic in them."
End of an Age: Many times, over and over again. The Stars' power is greatly waned in the world; the Sorella foresee that their death shall mean the end of their tribe's current way of life, and eventual decline and eradication; Oluwakim is ready to hunt the griffin into extinction, and end the war between them and the Arimaspians once and for all. his daughter then slays him, declaring the start of a new dynasty where griffins shall live unmolested by the giants.
There are no less than three explanations offered for the decline and "death" of Ajanabh. These are, the farmland was farmed to exhaustion after centuries (bo-ring), that a basilisk blighted the fields, and that their Mint ( a Lamia who was kept imprisoned there and forced to cough out coin after coin) was discontinued. Then again, possibly Subverted, as it appears Ajanabh enjoys (at least briefly) a second life of art and creation run rampant after the majority abandons the city.
Entitled to Have You: This is Cariaco the Hedgehog's feeling towards Oubliette. He thinks that since he was such a good and playful golden ball, he's entitled to marry her.
Expy: Ragnhild, the Black Papess, self-styled "the first of her name." Long, white-gold hair, considered exotic and beautiful by all who see her, seeks the Papacy of Al-a-Nur on a claim that is centuries old, wears manacles to show that she does not forget her enslaved past, is full of passion and vengeance but little experience in ruling... sounds a bit familiar,doesn't she?
Eyes Do Not Belong There/Eyeless Face: One of the Giota triplets has no eyes on her face, but instead has them on her stomach. To round out the trifecta, one of her sisters has ears on her stomach rather than her head, and the last sister has her mouth on her stomach.
Famed in Story: Zmeya's tragic story is so popular people go mad from love for her, or like Oubliette try to follow her to the land of death.
Fantastic Ghetto: Magical beings and other non-humans in Shadukiam live in separated areas, outside of the rose dome. Djinn had their own crowded quarter, before they moved to Kash. Yi are forced to wear special clothes to distinguish them from normal people. Giota, an oracle who knows the answer to every question, chose to reside in the shadow of Basilica, where only the despised appear, to guide them.
Fantastic Racism: Between humans and almost every magical being, especially Stars.
Also how the Oluwa feel about the Griffin and vice-versa — heck, Oluwakim feels this way towards humans, believing them to be a far inferior race to Arimaspians.
Fauns and Satyrs: Eshkol and her kinsmen. They are divided into families based on which tree they will turn into after their death.
Fantasy Counterpart Culture: The Monopods have a few things in common with Jews — for example, the main Monopod in the story is named Chayim, and his beloved is Tova, they look back with longing towards a lost homeland, and they are hated and despised by other Shaduki even though the Monopods form an important part of the Shaduki economy, they're blamed for poisoned wells and blighted crops — much like real-life Jews, in medieval history.
Foolish Sibling, Responsible Sibling: Hind and Hadil appear to be this, but as the story progresses it becomes much more complicated as to whether or not being the "responsible" girl is actually a good thing to be.
Four Element Ensemble: Applied to all four tales. The Book of the Steppe is Earth, the Sea is Water, the Storm is Air, and the Scald is Fire.
Framing Device: Like an updated version of the Arabian Nights, the four books are framed by the story of a prince, the sultan's son, who seeks out an outcast, mysterious girl in the garden. She tells him the stories from dusk until dawn, and always promises, at the end of one book, that the next book shall be even more wonderful.
This framing device deconstructs or subverts many of the tropes of the story of Scheherezade. Instead of a crowned Sultan who is set in his ways, the boy is young and very impressionable. Instead of taking place in a plush palace bedroom, the tales are told in a garden — beautiful, but not hospitable. And instead of telling tales to delay her death, by telling the tales, the girl accelerates whatever terrible fate is waiting for her.
Godiva Hair: Giota wears nothing but a dress made of her hair. This was normal for her and her sisters, as their entire bodies were held to be sacred, and thus they couldn't find holier cloths than their own hair.
Green-Eyed Monster: Iolanthe prefers Magadin over her own birth daughters. Their jealousy makes them rat Magadin out to Omir.
Half-Breed Discrimination: Genie/human couples are strictly forbidden. Children from such unions, if discovered, are burned alive and then have their ashes thrown into the sea.
Holy City: Al-a-Nur, the seat of the Twelve Towers. Eleven religions are held in balance by the rule of a Papess.
Horror Hunger / Hungry Menace: A lord named Maciej becomes filled with an insatiable hunger, which drives his lands to ruin and can only be (briefly) sated by eating his wife's body. What's weirder, it's never explained where this curse possibly came from, and just to top things off, the lord glows when he eats.
Incorruptible Pure Pureness: The Manikarnika, and especially Diamond, who is mentioned more often than any of the others, and always in terms of absolute purity and loveliness. It really stands out in a set of novels that are otherwise insistent on ripping to shreds every other trope associated with Incorruptible Pure Pureness — like unicorns and golden-haired princesses.
Insistent Terminology: Grog is a Magyr, not a mermaid. They are two completely different species, and the former is a great deal more Bad Ass.
Invisibility: Ostraya, the Princess of the Country of Glass, is afflicted with this condition. There is a huge bit of Fridge Logic implicit — she acquired her invisibility by being caught outside during a rain of glass shards, and she says that as a result, her body is made of glass. But the narrative treats her as if she is perfectly invisible, when simple common sense deduces that glass in the shape of a young woman would still be quite visible, by reflecting light and distorting the images of what's behind her.
Jerk Ass: Dinarzad, the Marsh King, Marsili, Oluwakim, and many others
Dinarzad loses her Jerk Ass status entirely by the second book
Last of His Kind: Quri and Jin are the last of the griffins, as they have been hunted to extinction by the cyclops, until their eggs hatch.
Like Brother and Sister: During their time in Marrow Oubliette and Seven become very close and even sleep in the same bed, but don’t show anything besides brotherly/sisterly devotion to each other. It’s subverted much later when Seven starts to develop more romantic interest in Oubliette. It makes her want to leave him behind and go find Zmeya.
Loads and Loads of Races: There are humans, to start with. There are animals such as hedgehogs, goldfish, cormorants, polar bears, and herons, which talk and have their own societies. Then there are Stars, djinni (made from Star-fire), the Yi, and the Hsien, for races that come from the heavens. Races that come from the sea include Magyrs, mermaids (a brief mention), Lamia, and selkies. On earth there are Arimaspians and other cyclops, giants, Griffins, dragons, Monopods, Cynocepheli, huldras, manticores, Gaselli, satyrs, kappas, and there are references to more.
Mad Oracle: Subverted with Giota. She pretends to be mad to scare off wealthy hypocrites and make space for those desperate enough (thus really in need) to seek her advice.
Mama Bear: Knife. She demands a quest of Leander to atone for the accidental murder of her daughter, and makes it clear that if she had thought it wasn't accidental, she would have "eaten his liver and smiled through the meal." Of course, as she's also Leander's mother, it's a little weird.
Master of Illusion: Ragnhild. The people of Shadukiam would not follow her to war, terrified of Al-a-Nur and its secret powers, and so her entire army of monsters and killers is an illusion she conjured up on the hope that Al-a-Nur would give up without a fight.
Meaningful Name: Sorrow's mother hoped to avert this for her, giving her that name so that the rest of her life would balance it in joy. Other names include Solace (Sorrow's counterpart), Knife, Hour, Seven (the seventh son of a seventh son), Snow, Scald, Dinarzad (Queen Scheherazade's sister in Arabian Nights) etc. Oubliette is a name for a trap from which no one can escape, and Oubliette develops an obsession with escaping and freedom.
Mercy Kill: The handmaidens of the Snake-Star ask her brother, the Harpoon-Star, to kill them after they deliver their message. Their mistress is dead, they've been maimed and abused, and they have nothing to live for.
The Mind Is a Plaything of the Body: When you change form, you body adjusts to this change. Played with in Aerie's case. She keeps a human mind inside a goose body, but thinks in inhuman categories, like nest and eggs instead of home and children.
Missing Mom: Most notably the Mare herself, but motherless children are a common occurrence in this story, whether because their mother is dead, disappeared, or just emotionally unavailable.
Moral Myopia: The Yi regularly kill sentient beings of every race or species, and see no reason why anyone would be upset at the sight of their loved ones' dead bodies walking around, possessed by a monster and decomposing. On the other hand, if one of their own is killed, they will tear the killer to shreds where he stands.
Neglectful Precursors: The Stars both resent and love the Mare that made them, and some of them are very bitter that they're apparently accidental by-products of cosmic creation and that the Mare doesn't care at all about their well-being. A step downward, the first Djinn were created by Star-fire touching the world — so the Djinn know that they're accidental by-products. They don't much like this either. Subverted with the Hsien, who also know that they're accidental by-products of the Moon's life cycle, but are totally fine with that, and love the Moon as their mother, while living their own lives.
Nested Story: At points in the book, the story is as much as five layers deep.
No Name Given: More than a few characters, as is standard practice in a fairy tale. Most interesting, though, the boy's name is never revealed. The girl appears to be going the same way until the very end.
North Is Cold, South Is Hot: Muireann (north, bordering the sea, and frigid) and Ajanabh (warm, southerly, and brimming with spice and color) are the most obvious example.
Official Couple: There are many romantic pairs in the books, but Eshkol the satyr and Shroud the selkie are the most noteworthy. Star-Crossed Lovers whose story recurs in "The Book of the Sea" and again in "The Book of the Scald." They are even mentioned in the epilogue, in a way that strongly suggests they found a way to be happy after all.
Omnicidal Maniac: The Hive Mind of the Kingdom of the Mice have nothing on their collective mind except for devouring the world and reducing it to dust, dust, dust!
One-Gender Race: The Lamia, always female (if they want to have a child, all they have to do is drink a man's blood), also the Hsien, who are neither male or female and do not reproduce at all. Both races are functionally immortal.
Orphan's Ordeal: The girl herself, as indicated in the series title, but there are a surprisingly high number of orphans throughout the story by all sorts of Parental Abandonment - including Scald, Knife, Captain Tommy, Seven, Oubliette, Snow, etc. etc. Stars, Djinn, and manticores, by their unusual creation myths, could all be considered orphaned races, contradictory as that sounds.
Our Dragons Are Different: Any goldfish can become one by jumping over a dam. However, its immature phase will look exactly like a young maiden — until they mature fully. Flying over the same dam will cause said dragon to revert back to being a goldfish.
Our Genies Are Different: Genies can grant wishes, but are restricted by law to ones granted by Kashkash, their god. They also only live for about fifteen years at the most, and when they die their fires will go out. They also need fire to grand wishes.
Our Giants Are Bigger: One becomes the gate and walls around a whole city. The Arimaspians might be classified as giants, being described as looking like black-skinned men the size of elephants, and they have but one eye, and are at war with Griffins. Also, they don't like being called "Cyclops," as they consider the race of Cyclops to be drunken layabout sheepherders.
Our Griffins Are Different: The size of elephants, often vivid in coloration. Their preferred diet is horses, their preferred material for their nests is gold, and their enemies are the Arimaspians.
There are also Lamia, whose tops are three-breasted women with blue skin, and whose bottoms are immense sea serpents. They are always female, live at the ocean floor (and have little lights in their hair, like anglerfish), and appear to be functionally immortal.
Parent Child Incest: Averted. Ismail needs to marry the woman who fits a certain belt. The only woman it fits is his mother. He finds a way around this problem anyway.
Parental Abandonment: The girl's parents are so ashamed of her mark that they leave her to raise herself in the Garden.
The Quest: Deconstructed all over the place. Most adventures don't go as planned, and the actual travel is depicted as being extremely boring.
Rags to Royalty: Ismail wasn't a peasant exactly, but he was the son of a backwater country baron.
"Rashomon"-Style: Not present through the entire text, but at points within the story the same event will be told by different, and conflicting, points of view.
Rapunzel Hair: Oubliette is tethered to the ground by her hair, and a house of sod, which means her hair would have to be at least past her hips. She's sitting/kneeling on the ground, but the way the scene is illustrated and described, her hair is spread out a vast distance.
Scald wears her hair, which is like smoke, in two large silver baskets at each of her hips to keep it from getting in her way. The fact that she has the longest hair of all of the Djinn is, in fact, why she is made the Ember-Queen at the start of the fourth book.
Raven Hair, Ivory Skin: Zmeya. A king who is about to kill her and her fellow priestesses can't help but notice her flawless pale skin, dark hair with green hints, and large black eyes. She is so beautiful that he not only doesn't kill her, but he takes her as his wife, that day, and with the conditions she sets.
Red Herring: It's easy to conclude that Solace is the daughter of Zmeya, having undergone a name change and given to Lantern to raise.
Reluctant Warrior: Beast/the Leucrotta. In fact, when Leander just asks for his skin nicely, he agrees, much to the consternation of the Marsh King
Remembered I Could Fly: It takes Grog the Magyr a too-close scrape with death to remember that she has sacs of exceptionally potent venom under her breasts, and then put them to good use. She lampshades it by saying how forgetful she is.
The Reveal: The girl is really Sorrow, daughter of two dead stars. The child Lantern took under his wings turned out to be the real daughter of the people Aerie left Sorrow with.
Sigrid the Netweaver is actually Ulla, the bear that Eyvind was in love with.
Knife is Leander's mother, and Aerie is his half-sister.
Same-Sex Triplets: The Sorella, three daughters with oracular powers granted by the Stars. Knife mentions early in her tale that daughters always come in threes to her tribe of horse-people, and that her sister's names were Quiver and Sheath. (But her daughter, Aerie, is a single birth. Never explained.) It turns out that this is because the Sorella's tribe eventually becomes Knife's tribe.
Screw Destiny: Interestingly, even if some characters, like Zmeya, claims You Can't Fight Fate, the book as whole seems to teach us that if you really want and try hard enough you may find your own path to follow.
Self-Made Orphan: The entire Tower of Patricides is based around this, although they view it as a very serious religious ritual. In a more villainous example, Ismail kills his father. Leander also kills his father and later joins the Tower of Patricides.
Shaggy Dog Story: Poor Eyvind finally manages to turn himself back into a bear, and find the bear he fell in love with that started his whole quest. She turns out to be more interested in becoming a pirate instead.
But Grog the magyr's consoling words to him, though gruff, suggest perhaps a subversion of this trope, eventually.
Zmeya acts out the tale of Melusine, becoming the Raja's wife only on the condition that he leave her and her children one night of the month to herself.
Shrouded in Myth: Recurs frequently. Sigrid's life story has become the subject of traveling show, opera, and a religion ( Sigrid herself is not very pleased when she finds out.) Kashkash is said to be a first genie, who ever lived, and feared by both his own kind and humans, even many years after his death. Turns out to be invoked by Kashkash himself. He was neither the first nor the most powerful.
So Beautiful, It's a Curse: A human girl who was so beautiful that she caught the eye of Aukon, the Bull-Star. He finally took her without her consent and changed her into a cow to keep her for himself. All her children seem to inherit the same curse: Huldras are often objects of affection of these who care nothing about their willingness.
Soiled City on a Hill: Shadukiam. Its citizens care about nothing besides money (their very religion seems to be centred around it) and they finally meet a rather karmic end.
Stages of Monster Grief: Magadin. She goes through despair, because of what she has been turned into, continues with quiet resignation and at the end fully embraces her new nature.
Star-Crossed Lovers: Shroud and Eshkol. They happily spend seven years together, but Shroud's instinct finally pushes him to leave his satyr lover and return to the sea. When he realizes they could have built a house on the shore and live there together, he spends several years looking for her to no effect. Unfortunately, during this time Eshkol remains imprisoned in a stomach of sea monster with the rest of her crew. The ending of the second novel suggests they finally reunite and live happily ever after.
Most literally, Eyvind and his beloved she-bear, Ulla, seek to marry at the time that a Star is murdered. As their whole culture is based around the Stars, this is a period of great mourning, including a prohibition on all marriages.
While the other Stars are not as popular as Zmeya, they are also annoyed and perplexed about being treated as gods.
Switched at Birth: Sorrow is left in Solace's place. Solace is given to Lantern to raise.
Theme Naming / Family Theme Naming: Frequently seen. For instance, Knife's sisters are named Sheath and Quiver, and her grandmother is named Bent-Bow. And all of the goldfish born at the river lock are named... Lock. As one fish explains, it only becomes confusing at mating season.
Edible Theme Naming: The Magyr we meet is named Grog (a type of rum served at sea) and her sister is named Tack (hard biscuits, eaten — you guessed it — at sea.)
This Was Her True Form: When Leander kills a random goose, she turns into her true form — a young maiden that was shapeshifted shortly after birth.
Too Good for This Sinful Earth: The Marnikarnika, and Diamond foremost among them. All that they wanted was to prove that humans and Stars could live in harmony and peace. And for their trust they were murdered in their beds. This might be justified in that the Marnikarnika never once speak for themselves, it is only their myth that spreads, and we hear their tale from a Star that mourns them — neither an unbiased source.
Uneven Hybrid: There is a girl, whose grandfather was a Djinn so she is a Three-Quarters Human Hybrid.
Ungrateful Bastard: Citizens of Shadukiam towards Idyll. He gives them the Rose Dome, one of city’s most beautiful buildings, and they not only don't pay him but also impale him and leave him to die.
Unicorn: We meet one in "The Book of the Scald," but this unicorn is not of the gentle peace and sanctity variety. Its tale is called "A Tale of Harm," to give you an idea.
Unreliable Narrator: Many of the storytellers are revealed to have left out certain details, changed things, and been biased in their storytelling. Perhaps the most egregious case is Sigrid the Netweaver, who neglects to mention that she was originally a POLAR BEAR in the story she tells.
Wandering the Earth: Many characters, but most notably Taglio, Immacolata, Hind, Grotteschi, Oubliette and Seven. They all meet at some point and wander the Earth as circus artists.
What the Hell, Hero?: The first thing we see Leander doing is stealing and killing a goose , who turns into a girl, from an old woman. To make matters worse, the old woman is his mother and the girl his half-sister. His story is basically him trying to make amends for this.
Wicked Stepmother: Lampshaded and subverted. Magadin makes a point of saying that her stepmother was wonderful.
Her stepsisters, though...well, they were certainly wicked enough to sell her out to Omir.
Wicked Witch: Knife — an old, ugly widow who lives in a cottage all by herself, whose first act is to attack Leander and cut off two of his fingers. At the very end of the story, another Wicked Witch archetype appears, a grey-haired crone with a long, hooked nose... but this is Aerie, Knife's daughter, who is powerful in magic but full of benevolence and love.
You ALL Share My Story: The stories are intricately connected, and the story that they end up telling is that of the girl in the garden — her parents and their lives and deaths, her midwife, the boy who paid her fare and the man who carried her to life, the djinn that sprang from her burned skin, and the girl whose place in the Palace she took.
You Can't Fight Fate: Zmeya and the Sorella. Zmeya asserts that this is the case for the Stars, who even if they can see their whole destiny on earth unspooling before them, are powerless to stop it, just as they cannot change their course in the heavens.