There is a tree in a garden that bears fruit. The fruit of the tree are books and while not exactly forbidden it is certainly a tree of knowledge. Knowledge that can bring about enlightenment, change, power, and, at least for this novel, a foreboding sense of despair.
Hiob, a priest, has led a delegation of his brethren to India in search of the fabled Christian kingdom of Prester John. In Valente's story John is not a myth but a real person who himself fled the icon wars of twelfth-century Constantinople and traveled east on a mission to find the church established by Saint Thomas. What he finds after crossing an ocean of sand on a ship of which he is the sole survivor is either the garden of Eden or a hell worse than any he had imagined.
Hiob and his fellow priest arrive at a village and find a strange woman dressed in yellow. She allows them to rest and make camp there and also allows Hiob to select any three books from the above mentioned tree. Like any fruit, the books oxidize and rot as they are exposed to the elements. Also like fruit, the books are subject to bruising and need to be treated very carefully. Hiob selects his three books: The Word in the Quince; The Book of the Fountain; and The Scarlet Nursery; and immediately sets to reading and copying them in his own non-perishable script.
The Word in the Quince is an account of John's time upon leaving Constantinople. We hear him describe the land he has come to, Pentexore, how every living thing has been given eternal life through a replusive fountain of youth, how anything planted in the ground will grow and flourish and bear fruit--from a silver ring, a book, one's lunch or even an unfortunate soul who found a way to die in the land of everlasting life. He describes the red, blue and white lions, genderless winged peoples, and other strange inhabitants of Pentexore. John is confronted with their existence, intelligence, and culture while trying to cling to his own Christian convictions and knowledge that tells him all these strange creatures are devils.
The Book of the Fountain is Hagia's, John's wife, account of his entrance into Pentexore. Her perspective is personal and also representative of how John is perceived by all the land's other inhabitants. He is seen as a baby, ignorant to all yet obstinate to education as all he is told is decidedly against church belief. In Hagia's account we can see the conflict of the people of Pentexore wanting to embrace John and his adamant refusal to be one of them. Of the three books The Book of the Fountain is the most heavily laden with foreshadowing as we see John sin--by his standards--time and again and how the seeds of his pride will grow, bear fruit and, what I assume will be disclosed in later volumes, ultimately destroy Pentexore. John's faith, and his adherence is to deny the land beneath his feet and the people living there. No one understands why John must deny every indulgence that would make him happy or risk a final death in the hope of eternal life when the people of Pentexore have all of that at the present.
The Scarlet Nursery was my favorite book of the three. It is told by a caretaker to three royal children. Through the stories told to the children we learn of the history, culture and nature of life in Pentexore: how, "among the immortal, good manners are as important as bread and water," and how immortal life grants an insensitivity to being well… alive. Living in the land of perfect abundance gets old. The stories of The Scarlet Nursery tell of how the people deal with the monotony of everlasting life, and of a rulers wish, "to discover a city where folk did not consider that living forever meant drowning in the worst cruelties they could fashion." And when one lives forever, they become as insensitive to cruelties as they do to living.
The narrative is rather linear with only small interruptions of Hiob and The Scarlet Nursery not immediately relating to John's life. It's hard to pinpoint an apex of the book as there is no climatic battle or traditional focal point that all events build toward. Instead what propels one to keep reading is the same wonder of discovery that John relates as we read about a people and a setting unlike any other. For me, this book and others like it should be what readers think of when 'epic fantasy' is mentioned. It is expansive and extremely dense. More than anything it is exotic and will leave you in awe of Valente's originality and creativity. While what drives the plot maybe a bit obscure, the legend of Prester John is about a Christian King… and in his coronation lies what I would deem to be the 'high-water' mark of the novel.
I'm honestly not sure I'd care about the quality of the novel's plot, characters, or subtext so strongly has Valente's command of prose arrested my senses. She assigned herself a tough task of describing a fictitious land inhabited by a bizarre population and succeed in creating a mythology and history that she could easily never exhaust. Everything from John's sunburnt scalp to the flowers and exotic animals are described in the most vivid, living color that words can possibly capture; all without coming across as overwrought. Sometimes the images she gives us are, quite literally, too beautiful to imagine, and other times they are equally stunning with a nightmarish quality readers should be repulsed by to some extent but even in these moments I was still thinking, 'but it's so pretty…' (I'm trying really hard not to gush about how much I love Valente's prose.)
As overripe fruit is wont to do, the three books picked by Hiob erode and rot before the end of a single one is reached. As The Habitation of the Blessed is only book one of three I can acknowledge the irony in not wanting to know what comes next, rather in future installments I want to know if my suspicions about this book will be confirmed. (What or rather 'who' is this tree of knowledge? Where are Hiob and his delegation of priests when they come across the woman in yellow and who are the people that seem to serve her and why? I have ideas to answer all these questions but discovering how Valente resolves matters will be much more fun than my speculation.)
It doesn't hurt to know a little history of the myth (in my past reading I thought people at the time assumed John's kingdom to be in sub-Saharan Africa), the eastern Christian church circa 1100AD, or Nestorianism, but none of that is necessary either. There is nothing in this book so esoteric as to not be discernible with only what is given. The Tower of Babel, the fountain of youth, the 'tomb' of Saint Thomas and the most beautiful perversion of the beatitudes are parts of the backbone of the story. This is historical fiction based on a medieval hoax at it's best. If you are seeking something not from the mold of standard epic fantasy with European culture in a secondary world filled with elves, swords and sorcery that Martin and Erikson seemed to have perfected; The Habbitation of the Blessed will serve you well.