Monday, March 16, 2015

Review: "The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making" by Catherynne M. Valente

Like so many bored and lonely children before her, September doesn't take a backward glance when offered an escape from her humdrum world into Fairyland. She takes the Green Wind's hand and steps into a brilliant and unpredictable place, where cities are fashioned out of cloth and the sea pounds a constant circuit around beaches strewn with gold.

But Fairyland needs September even more than she needs it. Good Queen Mallow, she who stitched Pandemonium together with her needle, has been replaced by a vicious Marquess. Chains of iron and bureaucracy weigh down what once was magical. Everyone September meets asks her to set things right... even the terrible Marquess herself.


The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherynne M. Valente (2011)
5 out of 5 stars

Complexity of Writing: 3/5
Quality of Writing: 4/5
Strength of Characterization: 5/5
Logic of Plot Development: 5/5
Evocation of Setting: 5/5
Effectiveness of Pacing: 5/5
Resolution of Conflict: 5/5
Emotional Engagement: 4/5
Mental Engagement: 3/5
Memorability: 4/5
Bechdel Test: pass
Diverse Cast: pass
Content Warning: character deaths, some unsettling imagery, reference to child abuse
Overall Response: distressed whale noises


More Thoughts: Now that is how you catch a reader's attention. The title simultaneously demands explanation and promises an original, character-driven plotline.

I picked up The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland with a fair bit of trepidation. In the past, I adored Catherynne M. Valente's Arabian Nights-esque duology, The Orphan's Tales (one of the first works to which I awarded five stars.) But I am a grumpy old book-miser who suspects that great fiction is a fluke. I went into Valente's YA adventure tale with my heart buckled up tight, expecting to be disappointed. 

By the time I encountered this passage, no more than a dozen pages into the novel, I was sold. It occurs early enough that I believe I can quote it in full without robbing you of any joy of discovery. Our heroine questions the fairy creature who has offered to spirit her away into Fairyland:
"Green Wind," September said, "I want to ask you a question, and I want you to answer me seriously and not call me any pretty names or tease me. [...] Why did you take me out of Omaha? Do you take very many girls? Are they all from Nebraska? Why are you being so nice to me?"

September could not be sure, but she thought the Leopard of Little Breezes laughed. It might have been a snort.

"That's rather more than one question. Therefore, I think it's only fair I give you rather more than one set of answers." He cleared his throat dramatically. “One: Omaha is no place for anybody. Two: No, my schedule keeps me quite busy enough. Three: See above. Four: So that you will like me and not be afraid."

"I said no teasing," said September.

"One: I was lonely. Two: I have been known to spirit a child or two away, I shan't lie. It is the nature of winds to Snatch and Grasp at things, and Blow Them Away. Three: Nebraska does not grow many of the kinds of girls who ought to go to Fairyland. Four: If I were not nice, and did not know the way to Fairyland, and did not have a rather spectacular cat, you would not smile at me or say amusing things. You would tell me politely that you like teacups and small dogs and to please be on my way."

September leapt off the Leopard and onto the dry, compact dirt of the closet between worlds. The Green Wind hopped lightly down beside her. "Was that really why?"

"One: There is a department in Fairyland entirely devoted to spiriting off young boys and girls (mostly orphans, but we have become more liberal in this late age), so that we may have a ready supply of a certain kind of story to tell when winter comes and there is nothing to do but drink fennel beer and peer at the hearth. Two: See above. Three: Dry, brown places are prime real estate for children who want to escape them. It’s much harder to find wastrels in New York City to fly about on a Leopard. After all, they have the Metropolitan Museum to occupy them. Four: I am not being very nice at all. See how I lie to you and make you do things my way? That is so you will be ready to live in Fairyland, where this sort of thing is considered the height of manners."

September curled her firsts. She tried very hard not to cry. "Green! Stop it! I just want to know--"

"One! Because you were born in--"

"If I am special," finished September, halfway between a whisper and a squeak.
At this moment, my wizened heart gave a cry like a submerged humpback. No matter which of the Green Wind's answers turned out to be true, I was going to be upset. (And I was. Upon conclusion of the book, I sat motionlessly keening for several minutes until my roommate came home and demanded to know what had set me off this time. It's a regular occurrence in this house.)

Valente doesn't go easy on her heroine. She doesn't tone down the historic dangers of fairy creatures or shy away from inflicting harm. However, not once does September triumph through violence. Certain of my readers in particular will be happy to hear that! Every now and then, it's refreshing to read an adventure where the climax doesn't boil down to who punches the hardest.

The novel is punctuated with illustrations of companionable strangeness. The chapter headings put me in mind of Lewis Carroll's Alice's Adventures in Wonderland--and for good reason. The logic of Valente's Fairyland has quite a bit in keeping with Carroll's Wonderland, especially regarding the tension between the harmless and the harmful. Naturally, it also contains nods to Peter Pan, particularly when referring to the curious heartlessness of children; and to The Chronicles of Narnia, in truly well-chosen, understated lines (there's one in the passage I quoted, if you're looking for it) and subtle references to Susan Pevensie, that figure of so much controversy.

This is not at all to say that The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland is derivatory, a mere hash of past classics. It is very much its own tale, lively and unprecedented. Like an heirloom cast-iron skillet, it is imbued with the rich flavors of stories past without recreating them.

The breadth of Valente's imagination is as much emotional as it is visual. I am enchanted with Lye, the soap golem, who washes September's courage until it's clean of "gunk and crusty things and dirt and fear and knowing how bad things can get and what pain feels like." (Courage freshly scrubbed, Lye runs September's wishes and her luck through a quick rinse as well.) On the other hand, I can't think too hard about the autumnal Worsted Wood and September's hands turning into dry twigs, or I'll be here all night with the shudders.

If there were any one thing I wanted from the book which I did not receive (leaving aside the plea for it to go on forever!), it would be the heroine's characterization. This is not to say that September is flat or under-developed. She is an admirable child heroine, full of pluck and wit and just enough genre awareness to get her into trouble. But at first meeting, she is described to the reader as a rude and irascible child, when in actuality she is perfectly courteous. Courtesy is always the safest approach when dealing with fairy matters, of course, but I would have dearly loved a pigheaded and cranky heroine, just to shake up the tale a bit more.

But I wouldn't say that The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland disappointed me in any way. I give it my heartiest recommendation, and eagerly await the next installment.

(Bonus fun fact! The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making was the first book to receive the Nebula Award before having been traditionally published. It first appeared online as a triumph of crowdfunding before being picked up for a print release in 2011.)

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