The Girl who Circumnavigated Fairyland etc by Catherynne M. Valente

Okay, stop me if you’ve heard this before: there’s this ordinary kid, right? They’re, like, ordinary. They live in America or wherever. In a house and stuff. And then one day they find like this door, except instead of leading to a room it leads to- get this- another world. Only it’s a totally crazy world with magic and dragons and shit. But it turns out there’s something wrong in crazytown because of evil and stuff, and only our plucky hero can save the day!!!!

If you’re at all acquainted with any form of fiction you’ve probably seen this story more times than you can count. It’s widely regarded as one of the most hackneyed, overplayed concepts you can possibly commit to paper or any other medium, just barely ahead of  “if you die in the game you die for real” in terms of originality. So it would take something pretty damn special to make me want to follow yet another plucky young hero through the looking glass, right?

Okay, that might do it.

Our heroine is September, a 12 year old girl living in Nebraska during (I think) World War 2. Her father has gone off to fight in the war and her mother works all day making airplane engines, leaving September at home alone. Then one day,

because she had been born in May, and because she had a mole on her left cheek, and because her feet were very large and ungainly, the green wind took pity on her and flew to her window one morning just after her twelfth birthday.

With nary a thought to what she’s getting herself into, September flies off with the Green Wind on the back of a flying leopard to Fairyland, where a spoiled little girl (or is she?) with seemingly omnipotent powers known as the Marquess rules with an iron grip. It’s of course up to September and a gang of wacky side-kicks to set things right and save the day.

I’ll admit that Girl Who Circ-Navved Fairyland in DIY Ship didn’t grip me right off the bat. The book  barrels through the opening with little to no time for character development- September goes to Fairyland on the very first page and her lack of any real motivation for running off to a potentially-dangerous parallel dimension makes it hard to really empathize with her at first. It doesn’t help that this book’s version of Fairyland leans pretty hard toward the surreal end of the other-world spectrum, with the result that it initially appears to be more of a random collection of zany stuff for September to interact with than a coherent world for a story to take place in.

This thankfully doesn’t last for long. As we learn more about September her decision to throw away her ordinary life so carelessly starts to make more sense, and Fairyland eventually coheres into a fascinatingly bizarre place for our heroes to romp around in. I won’t say that the story is anything you haven’t seen before, but this is probably one of the most gripping and entertaining versions of the old down-the-rabbit-hole stories I’ve read. Mostly this is due to the characters, with September herself taking the spotlight. As the story progresses we learn that she isn’t quite the preternaturally strong-willed Lyra Belacqua type the book initially seems to be setting her up as. Rather, she’s just an ordinary kid. She gets discouraged easily, cries a lot, makes rash decisions and gets distracted from what’s important. She has a simplistic way of looking at the world that doesn’t always make a whole lot of sense and in one funny/tragic twist of fate mis-interprets one of the main laws of fairyland in a particularly childish way that results in her breaking it repeatedly over the course of the book while still remaining convinced she’s doing the right thing. September is a character you quickly start to root for. You want her to succeed and when the second half of the book starts to put her through the physical and emotional wringer it can get unbearably tense.

Back when I gushed rhapsodically about Valente’s The Orphan’s Tales I made a big point of her poetic, at times almost experimental writing style. This isn’t quite as evident here, but that’s not to say the writing isn’t beautiful. Valente deliberately adopts the style of a Victorian fairy-tale, complete with an omniscient third person narrator-as-character who speaks directly to the audience. This even extends to September’s dialogue, which is lamp-shaded at one point when her inner monologue abruptly switches back to a more modern American style of speech.

The book is also shot through with a wonderfully subtle thread of the subversive. Early on we encounter what basically amounts to a semi-matriarchal polygamous relationship that’s presented entirely without criticism orcomment and September’s interactions with the Marquess border on being homoerotic at times (although admittedly this could veer too close to the psycho lesbian trope for some). The book also takes some sly pot-shots at the sort of small-town values someone living in September’s time would have grown up with, and which appear to be undergoing a resurgence in parts of America as of late. Valente does this mostly through metaphors or caricatures, trusting her audience to be able to work out what she’s really talking about without needing to resort to transparent soap-boxing to get her point across (*cough*). This is a book for kids at that age when they’re just starting to look seriously at the world around them and form their own opinions about things rather than going with what they’ve been taught. That’s an exciting time in anyone’s life, and writers like Valente who can speak to that age group without talking down to her audience make it all the more so.

As much as I loved TGWCFiaSoHOM it does have its flaws. This is very definitely a book aimed at young people first and foremost and if you don’t find yourself enjoying middle grade or YA books in general you’re probably not going to like this one. The relentless pace of the story is sometimes to its detriment, such as in the middle of the book when the character development of a new addition to September’s adventure group is rushed over, and particularly at the climax which feels like it needed a little more room to breathe. There’s also a somewhat contrived plot point whereby September is repeatedly referred to by the Fairyland denizens as “Ravished”, but for some reason never asks what this means until the very end of the book, when it becomes necessary to explain it in order to reveal a critical plot point.

But these are minor quibbles. Once Girl Fairyland Ship hit its stride I was hooked. It’s a fast-paced, extremely entertaining romp through an enchanting world in the company of an excellent protagonist, all presented through the beautiful prose of Catherynne Valente. Sign me up for the sequel.

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