Catherynne M. Valente,
Speak Easy
(Subterranean Press, 2015)

Imagine a world that combines the best -- or worst -- features of Faeryland and Hades, and blends them together in a New York City hotel in the peak of the Roaring 1920s.

That's the world Catherynne M. Valente has created in Speak Easy, a novella that puts her way with colorful phrases on artful display.

This book is a pleasure to read for the atmosphere it creates and the mood it evokes. Valente peoples the hotel Artemisia with amazing, fantastical characters, too, most of which cross some line between human and otherworldly in some way, large or small. Foremost among them are Zelda Fair, the "it" girl of the tale, and Frankie Key, a bellhop with aspirations and secrets.

The problem with this story is the lack of a plot to knit the characters and place settings together. The book lurches along, knocking the reader over the head with gorgeous purple prose -- one of those rare exceptions where a florid style truly suits the pages -- but never really provides a point for what they're doing.

Perhaps the fact that they're doing it is reason enough.

The novella is hyped as Valente's adaptation of the fairytale "The Twelve Dancing Princesses," but it's not, really. Her earlier work, Six-Gun Snow White, was also less than a faithful reinterpretation of the source material, but that was still more recognizable for what it was.

Here's a sample of Valente's descriptive writing, detailing the atmosphere at the Artemisia and its decidedly anti-Prohibition attitudes toward alcohol.

Nobody came out without their sequins roaring. Hell, without sparkle, you were as good as naked in the Artemisia. And, oh yes, King Gin and Queen Whiskey and their little bouncing baby Champagne showed up first and left last. Screwing in the bathroom, dancing on the tabletops, giggling on the rug.
Now, you know those royals weren't supposed to show their face in company back then. Some fine little dandies out in Washington waggled their fat fingers and said: don't you go doing that nasty old thing mankind's loved better'n babies since before the Egyptians ever hearda eyeliner. And we crossed our fingers behind our backs and said, yes, sir, Mr. Fancy Hats. You sure do know what's best for us. And as soon as those temperate backs were turned, out came every flask and jug and barrel and milk bottle, upturned down every gullet. Nobody drank like we drank, not since beer was new and scotch was still some ambitious peat bog's pipe dream. The second it wasn't allowed, liquor turned magic on us. Sweeter, stronger, bitterer, better. I suppose that might have been the wood alcohol, but it didn't matter. Screw opium, snuff can go hang -- who can get me a beer? A little rum, mister? How 'bout a swallow of red wine? For my nerves, you understand. We chased it like leprechaun gold, chased it down alleys and up six, ten, thirteen stories, chased it out of the city and underground. Every Granny who didn't think twice about her evening sherry in 1919, in 1920 knew somebody who knew somebody and might shank somebody with her sewing scissors if she didn't get her bottle on the sharp. If it could rot, we made it booze. Peaches and limes and cherries and apples and gasoline and iodine and Lysol and the wood off the church pews. Slurp it up, call it friend, hold it tight, keep it safe.

That, friends, was exhausting to read, exhausting to type. And the whole book's like that, told in a breathless voice that never pauses for air.

Like I said, I enjoyed it for what it was. I would have liked something more concrete among the glitter -- and, given what's here, I think maybe Valente could have cut it down a few dozen pages -- and I think the ending came rather abruptly, transforming giddy fantasy into something dull and hard. But still, go ahead and read it just for a taste of Valente's vivid prose.

book review by
Tom Knapp

13 February 2016

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