A young girl spends her days alone in a garden. She is outcast and ostracized from the people around her, because of strange black markings on her eyelids and around her eyes, believing her to be a demon-child. One day, a young prince wanders into her garden and be-friends her; in return, she tells him the stories she has read from her eyelids.
Although I have never read The Arabian Nights, I hear The Orphan's Tales duology is of a similar structure; each volume is comprised of two main stories, each of which consists of a net of connecting stories. I had never read a book with this stories-within-stories structure -- at first I was left a little confused as to who was telling the story and whether each story connected to each other, but a couple of pages in and I came to love this structure. This book is full of amazing depth because of it; almost every character the reader is introduced to has their own story to tell and so you come to know each character on a personal level, which is rare among fantasy fiction. It is often the case for me that even in the best books, there are characters that bore me to death and I would happily skip through any of their notable parts; In The Night Garden is very different. I cared about most of these characters, I actually felt sad when some stories ended because I felt I needed to read more, I needed to know more about this well-written character.
It is a testament to Catherynne M. Valente's utterly amazing writing ability that (at least, IMO) there are almost no two-dimensional characters, they hardly ever fall into tropes of typical fantasy and almost all of them has an interesting characteristic or feature that conflicts with your original perception of the character. I particularly loved the girl who tells the stories, even though she and the young prince and their relationship is relatively skimmed over. Not only are these characters interesting and well-written, they are downright weird. From a surly barman who was formerly a white bear, to the sea captain with a fox's head only seen in water, to the dog-headed monks that refrain from eating meat... all weird. Shapeshifting princesses, a race that can live forever by inhabiting other bodies, to young girls with three breasts; you name it and it's likely there. I am a newcomer to the new weird genre, having only read LOTR-ripoffs, and I was never overwhelmed. The strangeness of the stories or the characters never fazes you, you are only left more and more interested.
Even more fantastic than the characterisation and plots... Valente's writing. Each line is like poetry. The novel is rich in vivid and wonderful descriptions, but never ever purple. Never pointless and always adding something to each story. I am a quick reader but I spent a particularly long time on this book, just to appreciate every well-placed and beautiful phrase. It's a joy to read lines which may add nothing more than descriptions to the wonderful settings. I can easily say that Valente is my favourite writer even if judged only on technique and her use of language, let alone what's actually involved in the novels, because her grasp of language is unmatched by any writers who belong to the new weird/fantasy/fairy tale genres.
Another point that must be mentioned... In The Night Garden involves a lot of female characters. Again, they never fall into stereotypes, they never fall into the I'm-a-strong-woman-because-I'm-equal-to-a-m
It's dark, it's weird, it's imaginative, it's fantastic. If you like fantasy at all, read this book. If you like well-written weird, read this book. If you're dying for well-written female characters, read this book. If you like fairy tales, read this book. It's, quite simply, that good.