For my comments on book one of A dirge for Prester John; The Habitation of the Blessed please follow the link.
The most non-traditional fantasy series I've encountered continues not where things left off in The Habitation of the Blessed but in much the same fashion. Hoib's fate is uncertain, and friend and understudy Alaric is allowed to choose three books just as Hoib did. Alaric chooses three apprentices and they set out to copy the perishable script as fast as they can. I was hoping for a different presentation than the 'book-tree' if for no other reason than Valente had used it before and has demonstrated that her creativity doesn't need to lean on repetition. That said, it still works and works beautifully.
The Book of the Ruby is told by Hagia, yet is John's daughter's, Anglitor's, story. It tells of Pentexore preparing for war and the possibility of death for the first time in a thousand years and John's literary efforts. He has rewritten the Bible as to include Pentexore and not break God's word. John has also written letters to Christendom and letters have come back; Jerusalem is ripe to fall. They called to the fabled King Prester John for help and armored with delusions of grandeur, and complete ignorance John and his people set out to war.
The Left-Hand Mouth The Right-Hand Eye is written by Qaspiel at the request of Vyala, a lion somewhat outside of standard Pentexore life. Vyala is the care taker of John other daughter; the one he fathered with Hagia, Sefalet. Both of John's children are disfigured by standards of Pentexore a result of the union of two worlds coming together that shouldn't have ever mixed. Sefalet got the worse of it; she shines with arcane light, suffers convulsions, and is tormented with unwanted prophesy.
The third book, The Virtue of things is in the Midst of Them, was the most curious of the three, written by John Manderville a great adventurer and liar of prodigious ability. He adds color and, much as Prester John did in the first book, gives the reader a sense of familiarity; something we can latch onto while we come to grips with all of the author's bizarre originality and conform our minds to think as she wants us to. John Manderville starts off as comic relief, "I am immune to shame, boredom and cholera, but I confess fire and lightening will do me quiet in." However, he shows us a second world of Pentexore one that is shut away from the first. (One that I can't believe I didn't immediately recognize!)
Much as in Habitation of the Blessed it is the coming together of the three narratives that makes things so interesting. The encounter of John Manderville and Sefalet, Prester John's homecoming and a rather odd meeting of Salah-ad-Din, the understanding of what war is to a people to whom the concept is completely foreign. There is also a fourth narrative briefly told, one continued from The Habitation of the Blessed and it is perhaps the most powerful and unifies all the others. The intellectual criticism of religion and the power it hold over men like John walks the line between pensive and didactic. Valente has an odd power when talking about the absurdities of organized religion and listing it's faults while doing so by way of mythical creatures and wholly imaginary entities. This ain't Narnia Toto…
There is so much going on in Valente's world. I'm tempted to make some absolute statement like: "Never before has a writer packed so much material into to so small a space." Actually, that doesn't sound half bad, only I'm sure I haven't read enough to qualify to say such a thing. I can't even begin to guess where she'll go from here with the third book; all I can do is sit and wait until next year for it's publication. Valente remains in my mind one of the most creative and distinct voices writing today.