August 12, 2023

Review: Osmo Unknown and the Eightpenny Woods

Osmo Unknown and the Eightpenny Woods Osmo Unknown and the Eightpenny Woods by Catherynne M. Valente
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This author tends to be a "marmite" author--you either love her or hate her. I've liked her, especially at shorter lengths--her novellas Comfort Me With Apples and The Refrigerator Monologues are worth checking out--but I bounced off the full-length work of hers I attempted, the gonzo, over-the-top Space Opera. The latter was a high-concept tale (Eurovision, the European singing contest, in space) that might have made for a compelling story if the author had toned down her paragraph-length sentences and thesaurus vomitus writing style. I know a lot of people liked it, but I couldn't get into it.

But this book surprised me by being what Space Opera could have been, to my mind, if the author had exercised some restraint. I chalk that up to its intended audience: this is a middle-grade fable/fantasy, with the titular Osmo Unknown an ordinary boy (even though he lives in a village that is slanted just a bit sideways from our reality) who gets thrown into some extraordinary adventures. Valente's lyrical, lush writing style is still in evidence, with considerably more digestibility:

The moon rode high in the sky. It shivered off its red haze and turned big and silver and flat as a bony kneecap. Its surprised, gap-mouthed face stared down at him as it moved through the stars.

There are whole other worlds that lie just outside Osmo's village of Littlebridge, and a history that goes back farther than he ever knew:

Once upon a time, in the beginning of the world, a certain peculiar Forest fell in love with a deep, craggy Valley.

This one sentence is the key to the entire book, and the author makes good on the promise of it. She reveals it slowly and steadily throughout the book, along with fantastical creatures (another main character is Bonk, a skunk/badger/wombat cross, or "skadgebat") and even more fantastical worlds. There are myths and monsters, paper seas and "pangirlins," and through it all Osmo has to navigate this impossible quest his mother inadvertently sent him on and make it back to his village. Along the way he untangles the treaty that threatens Littlebridge, reconciles the Forest and the Valley, learns about himself, and makes the friends he never had in Littlebridge.

The only reason I didn't rate this higher is that the author almost fell prey to her "space-opera" syndrome through the middle of the book: the pacing was off and there were a few too many fantastical worlds for Osmo and his companions to tumble through. But I hope the author can use this more straightforward and disciplined writing style for future books. I could have finished Space Opera, and definitely appreciated it more, if it had been written like this.

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