If you go looking for it, just about halfway uptown and halfway downtown, there’s this hotel stuck like a pin all the way through the world. Down inside the Artemisia it’s this mortal coil all over. Earthly delights on every floor.
Catherynne Valente has found a nice cozy niche by recasting fairy-tales by way of ultra-stylized fantasy, such as her novel Deathless and her novella Six-Gun Snow White. Speak Easy fits neatly into that mold, retelling the “12 Dancing Princesses” story that I wasn’t familiar with beforehand. The fairy-tale is about a king who hires a soldier to investigate what his princesses are up to at night, and it turns out they go down into a secret world beneath the castle and dance. Speak Easy does its best to stick within that framework while flipping the plot on its head, replacing the princesses with Zelda Fair (a Zelda Fitzgerald analogue), who descends through a fantastic hotel soaked in gin and jazz-age opulence to party at its basement speak-easy somewhere in the realm of faerie. Hotel bellhop Frankie fills the shoes of F. Scott, and with a mad crush on Zelda, he pursues her down the rabbit hole.
The writing is a brilliant, unrelenting, over-the-top stream of faux ’20s slang that fizzes like champagne and brings the strange and wonderful characters to life; it echoes Zelda Fitzgerald’s writing, rich in verbal flourishes and extraordinary metaphors. This will make or break the novella for the reader, because the narrative voice and awe-inspiring imagery comes on so strong. Valente turns out some beautiful turns of phrase and genius metaphors, but the jargon wears thin at points; reading becomes exacting when the prose buries simple details beneath the ornate writing, other times it becomes patronizing from how the narrator chides the reader, while other times it comes across as saccharine-syrupy, too artificial and forced. My main problem is with the pacing: the first third is all setup, glorious and rich setup but setup nonetheless; the second third gets the plot rolling; the last third switches point-of-view from Zelda to Frankie, and while the civilisation if good it’s muddled in an inexplicable fairyland party.
Speak Easy is a boisterous and ambitious novella, and while I can say a lot of good things about it—it’s one of the most unique stories I’ve ever read, a fun madcap ride through a fantastic spin on the flapper era—I found it a triumph of style over substance. It’s more bold and less accessible than Six-Gun Snow White, and it was my enjoyment of that novella that convinced me to buy Speak Easy. I can’t fault Valente for pushing the boundaries here, penning something that is downright stunning from its ideas as much as the gorgeous prose. I would love to get lost in the hotel Artemisia, a place Valente describes in lush detail and populates with vivid characters. But I think her dedicated fan-base will be more appreciative of the unrelenting barrage of creativity than I. The writing is good, yes, if a bit much, but that’s all to see here—what’s left after that is, well, fluff.
Title: Speak Easy
Author: Catherynne M. Valente
First Published: August 2015
What I Read: Subterranean Press signed ltd ed (#184/1250)
Price I Paid: $20 (SubPress sale)
MSRP: $40 hc / $4.99 ebook
ISBN / ASIN: 1596067276 / B013T979LQ