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Literature / Dirge for Prester John

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A book about books. Edible books.
A Dirge for Prester John is a fantasy trilogy by Catherynne M. Valente. It consists of:

  1. The Habitation of the Blessed (2010)
  2. The Folded World (2011)
  3. The Spindle of Necessity (TBA)

In 1699, renowned orientalist Hiob von Luzern voyages to India in search of the legendary kingdom of Prester John, where strange mythological creatures have been converted to the Christian faith. Upon arrival, he discovers only a small village and a woman in yellow, who informs him that Prester John is gone. Unwilling to accept this, Hiob looks for some evidence of the lost kingdom. The woman in yellow shows him an impossible tree, one which grows books.

The books tell the story of the final days of the land of Pentexore, told by John himself, but also his wife, the blemmye Hagia. The third book is a curious little volume that tells the story of an earlier time before Pentexore adopted the Abir, the lottery by which people's lots in life are chosen. This book is told by Imtithal, an account of her task to care for the queen's children and the stories she tells them.

The more Hiob reads, the more his obsession with Prester John grows, and the more his obsession grows, the greater lengths he is willing to go to get the full story of what happened to the man who sent a letter to the western world several centuries ago.

A Dirge for Prester John provides examples of:

  • Abdicate the Throne: Abir gives up being queen at the second lottery.
  • The Ageless: No one who drinks from the Fountain three times will age.
  • Angsty Surviving Twin: Thomas, after the crucifixion of Christ.
  • Army of Thieves and Whores: The army John brings to fight the Crusades. They're the cream of Pentexore, but they have no idea how to form an actual army.
  • Arranged Marriage: Every marriage in Pentexore is arranged via the Abir, though the people feel free to make that work or not, and take lovers whether they are happy or not with their spouse.
  • Bilingual Bonus: "Imtithal" is the Arabic for "obedience".
  • Blue-and-Orange Morality: John's moral standards are perverse and inexplicable to the people of Pentexore, as are their moral standards to him.
  • Creation Myth: The Garden of Eden story pops up here and there, but each of the races of Pentexore have their own myths of how the world came to be. Later, John tries to rewrite Genesis to fit Pentexore in it, because he simply can't let it go.
  • Crisis of Faith:
    • Drives a lot of the plot. John tries hard to be a good Christian king of a kingdom of, in his view, heathen monsters.
    • In the frame story, Hiob's faith is also shaken by John's account of Pentexore.
  • End of an Age: John's reign is the downfall of Pentexore.
  • Everyone Calls Him "Barkeep": The woman in yellow, called Theotokos, which is clearly not her real name.
  • Fantastic Racism:
    • Averted, mostly. John is terrified of Pentexore's inhabitants, but he warms to them over time.
    • The people of Pentexore themselves don't feel this towards each other. Unless you count the people on the other side of the diamond wall.
    • In the second volume, John leads an army out of Pentexore to help fight the Crusades. The humans react badly.
  • Fountain of Youth: It's nothing like what the characters think it should be.
  • Framing Device: Hiob's account of his voyage to India.
  • From the Mouths of Babes: Sefalet's left-hand mouth says things no child should say. And she has no control over it.
  • God: Christ is almost a Death by Origin Story character via accounts of Thomas Didymus, but whether or not he was divine is unclear.
  • Gray-and-Grey Morality: The people on either side of the diamond wall view themselves as the real Pentexore.
  • Grows on Trees: The tree of Prester John produces books.
  • Growing Up Sucks: Lamis, Ikram, and Houd hate leaving the nursery.
  • Half-Human Hybrid: John's daughters Sefalet (half-blemmyae) and Anglitora (half-crane).
  • Hated by All: The people like John well enough, but nobody likes the Christian teachings he brings with him.
  • Historical Domain Character: Hiob von Luzern, Alexander the Great.
  • I Just Want to Be Normal: Sefalet is a freak of nature, even to Pentexore, and the possessed mouth really doesn't help her lovability.
  • Immortality Begins at Twenty: Justified. People take their third pilgrimage to the Fountain at thirty, freezing them in time at that age.
  • Immortality Bisexuality: Not to mention taking lovers from a number of different species.
  • Immortality Immorality: Thomas and John believe Pentexore is an abomination because no one should have life everlasting on Earth.
  • Innocent Bigot: John, who doesn't catch on for a long time that he's offensive or why.
  • Parental Abandonment: Both Hagia and John go to fight in the Crusades, and neither of them seems to miss Sefalet that much.
  • Parental Substitute: After her parents go to war, Sefalet is cared for by Vyala, Hadulph's mother.
  • Plant Person: What everyone even Thomas Didymus becomes after they die in Pentexore. The bodies of the dead are planted and become trees.
  • Poor Communication Kills: John and his people have completely different ideas of what war is. He knows it means a lot of bloodshed (even if he naively also thinks of glory). His people think of the mating season of the cranes and pygmies.
  • Preacher's Kid: Sefalet more than Anglitora. Sefalet is both angelic and diabolic.
  • Public Domain Character: Prester John, John Mandeville.
  • "Rashomon"-Style: Not present through the whole text, but events are sometimes told from different, and conflicting, points of view. Namely John and Hagia's narration.
  • Really 700 Years Old: Just about everyone in Pentexore.
  • The Reveal:
    • Ysra and Ymra are Gog and Magog.
    • Hajji is Imtithal.
  • Sex Is Evil, and I Am Horny: John struggles with sexuality.
  • Split Personality: Sefalet's right and left-hand mouths.
  • Story Within a Story: The story of Prester John is told by books Hiob reads in the framing narrative.
  • Succession Crisis: Invoked and deliberately averted by the Abir, which decides the king by lottery. And even when the king does die, just plant him and wait a little while. He'll keep ruling in tree form.
  • Switching P.O.V.: Each volume contains three books, and the frame narrative of Hiob, or his assistance Alaric.
  • Trapped in Another World: Getting into or out of Pentexore is impossible most of the year, effectively trapping anyone who isn't keeping a strict eye on the Rimal.
  • Unexpected Successor: It's debated whether or not John should be allowed to take part in the Abir when he knows so little of Pentexore's ways, because what if he becomes someone important? And then he's the king. He cheated.
  • Unreliable Narrator: Mandeville just comes out and says he is one.
  • Used to Be a Sweet Kid: The general response to Sefalet with regards to her left-hand mouth.
  • Weaker Twin Saves the Day: More like weaker twin Thomas goes off to have much wilder adventures.
  • What the Hell, Hero?: No one is really happy with anything John does, and he is often called out for his prejudice. Even Hiob, several centuries later, judges John for falling away from Christian teaching.
  • Who Wants to Live Forever?: Invoked and deliberately averted. The Abir exists to change up people's lives every couple centuries to make sure no one is bored or dissatisfied with living forever.
  • Wicked Stepmother: Averted. When Anglitora comes to meet John, Hagia practically adopts her as her own.
  • Year Outside, Hour Inside: Time flows differently depending which side of the Rimal you're on. Which leads to John realizing that the world he knew is pretty much gone.