Title: The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making (Fairyland #1)
Author: Catherynne M Valente
Year of Publication: 2011
Length: 247 pages
Genre: fantasy-folklore / young adult
New or Re-Read?: Brand New!
Rating: 4.75 stars
This book is so thoroughly charming.
I love the way Valente weaves stories. I adored her style in The Orphan’s Tales (which I will eventually re-read and review here, but in the meantime, I’ll just say: if you haven’t read them yet, do so, immediately), and it’s just as delightful in The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making.
September is one of the Ravished, invited into Fairyland by the Green Wind and a Leopard. Given this chance, she jumps at it, without a second thought or even waving goodbye to home as she departs — and, as the narrator tells us, in the moment that made me know I was going to be passionately in love with this book:
One ought not to judge her: All children are heartless. They have not grown a heart yet, which is why they can climb tall trees and say shocking things and leap so very high that grown-up hearts flutter in terror. Hearts weigh quite a lot. That is why it takes so long to grow one. But, as in their reading and arithmetic and drawing, different children progress at different speeds. (It is well known that reading quickens the growth of a heart like nothing else.) Some small ones are terrible and fey, Utterly Heartless. Some are dear and sweet and Hardly Heartless at all.
And this idea of the heart traces through the rest of the book. As soon as September makes it into Fairyland (after passing through customs), she has to choose which path to follow: to lose her way, her mind, her life, or her heart. And she reasons that, of the four options (with losing her way being the direction she just came from), losing her heart seems the least perilous option. Pretty soon, she meets some witches and accepts what seems like a very small quest — but, as is the way of things in Fairyland, it spirals into a much larger one. She also encounters a Wyverary (the son of a Wyvern and a Library), who knows everything there is to know about anything, as long as it begins with the letters A-Through-L; the Marquess, a rather nasty piece of work; her panther, Iago; a Marid, a djinn of the sea, named Saturday; a herd of free-range bicycles; several proper Fairies; a pooka and her mother; a golem made of soap; graduate students in alchemy; a land where it’s always Autumn; houses and villages which get in the way; and a whole host of other fascinating personages and places.
The whole story is enchanting. September may be Somewhat Heartless, but she has a strong moral compass and demonstrates tremendous loyalty to her friends. The narrative voice hits just the right balance, childlike wonder mixed with wry humour and a fair few sophisticated jokes, invoking the sense of old-fashioned fairy tales without crossing the line into too terribly twee. Valente indulges in enough description to evoke the otherworldliness of September’s surroundings and encounters, without losing the story. The world itself is whimsical, but with a very definite underlying structure. Fairyland is not pure chaos, not entirely random. Though characters and events may seem, at first, to exist in a vacuum, independent of other parts of the story, there are tenuous threads connecting them, and I imagine more will come to light in future books (and can I just say how excited I am that this is the first of a series?). I can easily understand why Neil Gaiman contributed a cover blurb: The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland… reminds me of Stardust and his poem “Instructions” more than anything else, though I’ve seen other comparisons to Alice in Wonderland. (Not having read that since I was a very small thing, I can’t comment on similarities there).
What I like best about Valente’s writing, though — and this was true of The Orphan’s Tales as well — is that the writing gets into your head. For a while after reading, the world just seems a bit more magical. Your thought patterns take a subtle shift and seem to echo the graceful, explorative prose. At least, mine do, anyway. This is a story that sticks with you. It doesn’t stay locked up inside the books, even though Valente tells us that is the whole purpose of books:
…no one may know the shape of the tale in which they move. And, perhaps, we do not truly know what sort of beast it is, either. Stories have a way of changing faces. They are unruly things, undisciplined, given to delinquency and the throwing of erasers. This is why we must close them up into thick, solid books, so they cannot get out and cause trouble.
I don’t know if the Fairyland books will cause so much trouble, but they’re certainly not staying safely in their pages. This is the sort of story that lingers, that follows you around, whispering its little truths and revelations to you long after your eyes have left the printed word. And I find that so magnificent.
I knock a quarter-point off simply because September doesn’t seem like she’s 12. More like 9 or 10. She just doesn’t have that cusp-of-puberty feel, and it distracted me a couple of times. I wonder how that will progress through the rest of the novels.
Overall, though, this book is nearly flawless. It’s a wonderful celebration of imagination and a gorgeous venture into Fairyland. This is meant to be a children’s or a young adult novel, and I’m sure I’ll read it to my own small ones when I someday have them, but there’s absolutely no reasons for adults not to enjoy it themselves, on its own merits, as well. The tale is, as all the best are, thoroughly transporting. I eagerly await the next installment.