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Sandman, Volume 4: The Season of Mists, by Neil Gaiman

Title: Sandman, Volume 4: The Season of Mists
Author: Neil Gaiman
Year of Publication: 1992
Length: 224 pages
Genre: graphic novel – fantasy / magical realism
New or Re-Read?: Re-Read
Rating: 4.5 stars

First off, I apologise for the lack of reviews lately; NaNoWriMo has been consuming most of my post-work hours, leaving me little time either to read or to compose reviews.

In Volume 4 of the Sandman graphic novel series, the focus is initially — and for the first time — on the family. That is, on the Endless, on their interactions with each other. Though we’ve seen some of them before — and though one, known here only as the Prodigal, is still missing from the count — this is the first time we get explicit descriptions of each and his or her duties. Destiny calls a meeting, because it is destined that he will. Desire picks a fight, which leads to Dream deciding that he needs to go free Nada (remember her?) from Hell, even though it may cost him his own existence.

He prepares himself for battle, knowing that he challenged and offended quite a few demons, not to mention the Lord of Hell his-infernal-self, the last time he was down there. But when he arrives, he finds Hell… empty. Abandoned. And Lucifer Morningstar announces that he’s giving up the shop — that after 10 billion years, he’s had enough. It’s a tremendously inventive look at that character, accompanied by a wonderful commentary on human nature as it relates to religion and the idea of damnation. Lucifer complains:

Why do they blame me for all their little failings? They use my name as if I spent my entire days sitting on their shoulders, forcing them to commits acts they would otherwise find repulsive. “The devil made me do it.” I have never made one of them do anything. Never. They live their own tiny lives. I do not live their lives for them.

And then they die, and they come here (having transgressed against what they believed to be right), and expect us to fulfill their desire for pain and retribution. I don’t make them come here. They talk of me going like a fishwife come market day, never stopping to ask themselves why. I need no souls. And how can anyone own a soul? No. They belong to themselves…. They just hate to have to face up to it.

After chivvying out the last few stubborn souls (including Breschau, and when Lucifer tells him, “No one cares any more, Breschau. No one remembers. I doubt one mortal in a hundred thousand could even point to where Livonia used to be, on a map”, I would just like to point out that I am that one in a hundred thousand. I mean, maybe not precisely, but it was a Baltic state, somewhere in the Latvia-Estonia region) and recalcitrant demons, and having Morpheus cut off his wings, Lucifer locks up — and throws Morpheus the key. He makes Morpheus custodian of what he calls “the most desirable plot of psychic real estate in the whole order of created things” — and he proves right, for claimants waste no time in coming a-calling.

Representatives from many different pantheons show up: Odin, Thor, and Loki for the Norse, looking for a way to avoid Ragnarok; Anubis, Bes, and Bast for the Egyptian; three demons displaced from Hell, led by Azazel, who offers to trade, giving Morpheus Nada as well as another demon who had offended Morpheus in the past in exchange for the return of their property; Susano-o-no-Mikato for Shintoism; manifestations of Order and Chaos; two angels, Duma and Remiel, from the Silver City, there, Remiel claims, simply to observe; and Cluracan and Nuala of the Faerie, asking that Hell be left empty, so that they will no longer have to pay their tithe. Morpheus tells them that he will hear each delegation in turn, and then make his decision. Ultimately, Morpheus decides to remit Hell to its original creator, and hands the key over to Duma and Remiel; the damned return, and things go on much as usual — except that now, under the direction of the angels, the overtones are now of purifying, not punishment, because they love the souls they now have charge of — which, as the damned note, makes it so much worse.

But that doesn’t settle issues for Dream. He still has to contend with the demon Azazel, who threatens to destroy Nada in revenge for Morpheus’s decision. But in the Dreamland, Morpheus has supreme power, and he defeats Azazel and sets Nada free. They have an appropriately anticlimactic conversation — what do you say to an old lover, ten thousand years later? — and Nada decides that she would like to forget all and live again. Morpheus grants her request, causing her to be reborn in the body of a Chinese boy. Still in the Dreamland, Loki tricks Susano-o-no-Mikato into taking his place in his own personal hell; when Morpheus learns of this, he frees the Shinto god, but agrees to let Loki remain free as well, putting an illusion in his place, with the understanding that Loki is now in his debt. Finally, Morpheus finds himself saddled with an unexpected burden: Nuala, who had been offered up as a gift by the Faery Queen, and who cannot now return home without causing offense. Dream agrees to let her stay, but strips her of her glamour, revealing not the beautiful, haughty blonde, but a small, pointy-eared, mousy-haired girl. The collection wraps up with Lucifer on an Australian beach, discussing the sunset with a local man.

This is one of my favourite volumes in the Sandman series, though possibly for all the wrong reasons. What I love about this story is not, ultimately, the larger arc. I love the details. I love seeing gods from different  pantheons interacting. I love meeting Nuala. I love the toast of Hob Gadling, which I never fail to bring out at parties:

To absent friends, lost loves, old gods, and the season of mists; and may each and every one of us always give the devil his due.

There’s an odd poetry to this volume. Perhaps appropriately for a story featuring Lucifer Morningstar, there’s an almost Romantic sensibility to the language — which is often entirely at odds with the grotesque and gruesome artwork. Lucifer both is and is not the Byronic hero; appropriately for the original rebel, he refuses to conform to anyone’s expectations. He is, perfectly, a nonconformist, refusing even to adhere to the usual picture of nonconformity that latter ages have painted for him. That sense of the language fitting the character and situation continues through the rest of the issues, down to the lettering for the speech bubbles of each of the various visiting pantheons. Gaiman gives each of them a unique voice — whether tangentially polite, like Susano-o-no-Mikato, thunderingly direct, like Thor, floridly gracious, like Cluracan, or purringly sensual, like Bast. No one representative actually gets that much stage time, but you still finish the volume feeling certain you know who these individuals are — both within the confines of their mythos, and out of it, in the less-cleanly-cut world of Sandman.

The only real off-note for me in this collection is the side story taking place at the boarding school, when the closing of Hell apparently means that the dead start coming back. I just find it rather dull, and don’t think it really adds anything.

Overall, this is a great story, and it sets up so much for the rest of the series. So many characters will return, so many deals struck or rejected will become important again, and so many things hinted at will be revealed in full later on. The Season of Mists opens up the universe to a larger expanse, and we also see more of Morpheus ruling his realm. The Dreamland gets some more rules and structures — not to mention new inhabitants. The Season of Mists is a great, strong installment in the series, a detailed and well-crafted exploration of the mythos of Gaiman’s universe.

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Sandman, Volume 3: Dream Country, by Neil Gaiman

Title: Sandman, Vol. 3: Dream Country
Author: Neil Gaiman
Year of Publication: 1991
Length: 160 pages
Genre: graphic novel – fantasy/historical
New or Re-Read?: Re-Read
Rating: 4.5 stars

Dream Country is, for my money, where the Sandman series goes from good to genius.

The third volume isn’t an arc, but rather a series of one-shots. These one-shots beautifully illustrate the real advantage of the graphic novel medium — the freedom to take these side tracks, which are linked thematically, perhaps tangentially tied in to the main story, by the thinnest of threads, but which mostly just flesh out the author’s world. Gaiman explores themes, indulges in experiments, and it’s gorgeous.

The first story, “Calliope”, explores a captured muse. Calliope, a bonafide Greek remnant, was caught decades ago by a writer, enslaved, and forced to inspire him to greatness. But the man is old now, soon to die, and so he sells his muse to a Richard Madoc, a young man plagued by writer’s block. He’s written one great book, and his publishers are hounding him for a sequel he doesn’t have — until he trades a trichinobezoar for Calliope. Her suffering is palpable and harrowing; she appears nude, in a way (as Gaiman indicates in the script, which is included at the back of this volume) that is anything but titillating, and when Madoc rapes her “on a musty camp bed,” it’s profoundly uncomfortable for the reader, because we’ve become, somehow, complicit in his crime. As the story progresses, Madoc becomes, of course, fabulously successful — and Calliope, profoundly miserable, calls out first to the Fates, then to Morpheus, who we learn was once her lover. This is the point where the story intersects with the main plot, though we don’t yet know just how much it will — but the first hint is here, where Morpheus helps her to freedom, taking pity now where once he might not have, softened to her plight by his own recent captivity. I like “Calliope” because it’s an interesting twist on a muse story, and it attacks the question, terrifyingly present in so many writers’ hearts, about just how far we would go for success — not just for the fame and money, but for that glorious feeling of knowing what you’ve created is right. Morpheus’s punishment is apt: first he floods Madoc’s head with stories, too many stories, the blessing turned into a curse. Then, when Calliope asks that Madoc be shown mercy, Morpheus withdraws everything — Madoc ends as he began, with no ideas at all.

The second story, “Dream of a Thousand Cats”, is interesting in large part for the artwork. A small kitten goes out in the middle of the night to listen to a traveling evangelist Siamese tell a story. After her owners callously drowned kittens she bore to a stray tomcat, she begged for justice, and during a dream, traveled through a wasteland to see the Dream Lord — Morpheus again, but who here takes the form of a giant black cat (intimating that Morpheus’s form depends, in large part, upon the viewer). He tells her (and here we see the classic frame structure used quite well) that once upon a time, cats ruled the world, and humans were their playthings, until one day a prophetic human got all mankind to dream the same dream — a dream that changed the world, not just into what it is today, but so that it had always been that way. The Siamese is now traveling the world trying to accomplish the same goal, to get as many cats as she can to dream the same dream and turn things back. The story is simple, if elegantly woven, but as I said, what I love here is the artwork. The artist of this story really knows cats, the difference in build between breeds and ages and lifestyles, the expression in the faces.

The third story in the collection isn’t just my favourite in this volume, it’s one of my favourites overall. If I ever get the chance to get Neil Gaiman to sign something for me, it’ll be “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”

One of my grad school professors, and now my professional mentor, has a great lecture about Shakespeare’s Dream. He talks about its flawless construction, how it opens up and up, then narrows back down again, layering fantasy and reality together. Our players sleep, dream, wake — and then enter the theatrical world, a different kind of dream, and at the very end, Puck releases us all from the impossibility we so willingly bought into for two hours’ time. It’s a thing of beauty, and Gaiman builds on this structure gorgeously. In “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” (which, incidentally, was the first comic book to win a World Fantasy Award), we return to the bargain that Will made with the Dream Lord, and learn its details — in exchange for the power to write the way he does, Shakespeare will write two plays for Morpheus, one at the beginning of his career, and one at the end. Midsummer isn’t quite at the beginning of his career, but it’s close enough to fudge, and it’s certainly one of his first truly great plays. He wrote it the same year (probably) that he wrote Romeo and Juliet and Richard II, and you can tell that he’s really starting to hit his stride in those three plays — so this narrative makes sense. But Morpheus doesn’t just have him write the play; he wants Shakespeare’s troupe to travel out to the countryside to perform it for a very particular and peculiar audience: the Fae themselves. And so, as the book progresses, the story opens and closes again and again like a blossoming flower, moving from the microcosm of the world of the play, out to the world of the players, alternately bickering about craft matters and trying to contain their astonishment at their audience, to an in-between place, where Titania tempts Shakespeare’s young son Hamnet with promises of glory in her realm, all the way out the entirely Other world of the immortals, where Morpheus converses with Titania and Auberon, and where the lesser fairies show themselves every bit as petty and quarreling as the mortals. They are all echoes of each other, and the framing structure of the play helps crystallize the reflections.

The thing is, I can talk all I want about the structure and the references and the cleverness, but none of that is why I adore that story so much. It’s just magic. There’s something intangible to it that just makes it such a joy to wander through. Every page is a delight, crammed with nuances, details, and clever jokes. Charles Vess illustrates — who else, to do justice to the subject matter? — and his wonderful balance of ethereal grandeur with cheeky whimsy fits the story perfectly. And then there’s the dialogue, the meanderings of truth flitting in and out of the fiction:

MORPHEUS: You have asked me why I asked you back to this plane, to see this entertainment. I… During your stay on this Earth the faerie have afforded me much diversion, and entertainment. Now you have left, for your own haunts. and I would repay you all for the amusement. And more: They shall not forget you. That was important to me: that King Auberon and Queen Titania will be remembered by mortals, until this age is gone.

AUBERON: We thank you, shaper. But this diversion, although pleasant, is not true. Things never happened thus.

MORPHEUS: Oh, but it is true. Things need not have happened to be true. Tales and dreams are the shadow-truths that will endure when mere facts are dust and ashes, and forgot.

There’s so much brilliant in that little snippet of conversation. First, the idea of the Fae leaving our mortal realm, and taking some of the magic of it with them when they go — perhaps for the better. Our world is less wild, less dangerous now, for certain, but the departure of the Fae is part of the relentless march of Progress, and it leaves something wanting in its wake. Then there’s the statement, which could so well cover the entire series, really: “Things need not have happened to be true.” It’s a guiding principle of my life, really, as I think it is for any writer who really loves the stories she tells — and as it is for children. Stories endure where facts disintegrate, because there’s just something stronger, more sinewy and resilient, about the tale (which Shakespeare knew better than anyone, judging by what he did to the narrative of English history). The magic of this issue is just entrancing, and that’s why it’s one of my favourites.

The last story in the collection is actually the one I don’t at all care for. “Facade” is, I think, a little weak — perhaps because its claustrophobic nature makes it hard for the expansive exploration I so enjoy in the other stories, perhaps because the main character is obviously a reference, pulled from DC stock, but not one I’m familiar with, so it’s hard to make any sort of connections. Urania is a former superhero of some sort, pensioned off now that she’s no longer needed and sort of deteriorating — the government forced her to magically irradiate herself in an Egyptian temple, and the Power of Ra transformed her into Elemental Girl (or something). She’s no longer organic matter; she’s indestructible. And that means she can’t die, even though she wants to. She’s become a reclusive agoraphobe, terrified of revealing what she’s become to anyone. Death shows up and eventually gives her the secret of ending her existence. It’s not much of a story, for my preferences, and it’s the one I always forget is in this collection. I take it that folk of other sensibilities have received it better, though.

Overall, this is a beautiful piece of work, a jewel in an amazing series. The four different explorations of storytelling all come at the overarching themes of the series from different angles, and they all illuminate something different about the nature of dreaming and its relationship to the waking world.

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Lords and Ladies, by Terry Pratchett

Title: Lords and Ladies
Lords and LadiesAuthor: Terry Pratchett
Year of Publication: 1992
Length: 400 pages
Genre: fantasy / humour
New or Re-Read?: many times re-read
Rating: 5 stars

This isn’t just my favourite Pratchett book; this is one of my all-time favourite books. One of the books that will make the list if someone asks me for my Top Five.

Like Wyrd Sisters, Lords and Ladies spirals around a Shakespearean plot, although considerably more loosely than Wyrd Sisters does (there are, however, subtler quotes peppered in all over the place, which is a delight to as thorough a Shakespeare geek as I am). At the essence of it, though, we have fairies, and a wedding: Magrat “wet hen” Garlick is about to marry King Verence II, lately of the Fool’s Guild. Verence has determined to be the best king he can, based largely on advice out of books he’s had sent from Ankh-Morpork. His efforts are continually frustrated by his citizenry, who don’t think a king has any business telling them how to farm since they don’t tell him how to king, and who are so vehemently anti-democracy that they’ve opposed all his efforts at instilling a more egalitarian form of parliamentary government on them. Magrat is caught between witch and queen (aware that she can’t be both unless she’s willing to go the route of behaving wickedly and wearing low-cut gowns), and is fed up with Esme and Gytha acting like queen is second-best option.

Esme and Gytha, meanwhile, are dealing with some young upstart witches — one of my favourite bits of satire in the book. Whereas Magrat is clearly inspired by New-Age-y, hippie type witches, what with the flowy garments and Eastern influences, the younger set — Diamanda (nee Lucy), Perdita (nee Agnes), Magenta (nee Violet), and the rest — are clearly inspired by the more recent Goth-type witches. I know what it’s like to be young and foolish, and while I flatter myself I was never quite so arrogantly obtuse as Diamanda, well, maturity’s memory does tend to gloss over the more shameful elements of years’ past. At any rate, reading about these girls is utterly satisfying, both as someone who has no patience with that sort of nonsense now and as someone who still retains a touch of nostalgia for that irreplicable feeling of being so young and so sure. It’s probably because Pratchett handles it so well, as he always did with Magrat’s brand of lunacy — it might be ridiculous and ludicrous, yes, of course, but it isn’t mocked in a truly cruel way. There’s still an indication that it either comes from the heart, from some place of purity (in Magrat’s case), or that it at least comes from a combination of youthful indiscretion and the near-painful imperative to know who you are and what you want to make of yourself, which may lead down absurd paths and rightfully earn some gentle ridicule, but which can’t be condemned, all the same, because we’ve all been there. I can laugh at Diamanda and Perdita and Amanita because I am, at least a little bit, laughing at myself, ten or twelve years ago.

Unfortunately, Diamanda’s wounded pride gets the better of her after she loses a witching contest against Esme, and she does something truly foolish — something that opens Lancre up to a fairy invasion.

And now we get to what I really love about this book. This book treats the Fae properly. Which is to say, as terrifying creatures who are the reason iron horseshoes are considered lucky, because we once needed it to protect us; as hypnotizing, merciless, pitiless, and unfeeling; as dangerous and carelessly destructive, thieves of children, slayers of cattle, ruiners of crops, who steal everything and leave nothing and take and take and take; as the dark truths behind a hundred nursery rhymes where, as Pratchett puts it, protective charms and cautionary warnings are passed down “from grandmother to grandchild in little bits of nonsense they won’t bother to forget.” In a way, the book is a nice satire of the transformation the Fae have undergone in the last two hundred years or so. The Victorians and Edwardians turned them nice, turned them into cute little things who grace stationary and can be portrayed delicately in watercolours. I don’t know whether I blame James Barry or the pre-Raphaelite painters more. It’s starting to swing back the other way, though (thanks in part to this book and to Neil Gaiman’s Stardust and Sandman), and the darker interpretation makes for much more interesting stories. A lot of those nursery rhymes and poems find their way, explicitly or not, into the story — the ballad of Tam Lin, Thomas the Rhymer, Arthurian legends, Cornish prayers. (I refer my Gentle Readers once again to the L-Space if you need a cheat sheet).

Then there’s the fact that this book hits on another of my favourite topics — parallel universes. Because Pratchett sums it up in a way that I think is pure genius:

There are indeed such things as parallel universes, although parallel is hardly the right word — universes swoop and spiral around one another like some mad weaving machine or a squadron of Yossarians with middle-ear trouble.

And they branch. But, and this is important, not all the time. The universe doesn’t much care if you tread on a butterfly. There are plenty more butterflies. Gods might note the fall of a sparrow but they don’t make any effort to catch them.

Shoot the dictator and prevent the war? But the dictator is merely the tip of the whole festering boil of societal pus from which dictators emerge; shoot one, and there’ll be another one along in a minute. Shoot him too? Why not shoot everyone and invade Poland? In fifty years’, thirty years’, ten years’ time the world will be very nearly back on its old course. History always has a great weight of inertia.

Almost always…

At circle time, when the walls between this and that are thinner, when there are all sorts of strange leakages… Ah, then choices are made, then the universe can be sent careening down a different leg of the well-known Trousers of Time.

I’ve taken to using the Trousers of Time metaphor when discussing this sort of thing, and it either goes over quite well or like a lead balloon depending entirely on how willing my conversational partner is to accept my madness and move along. I do feel rather like Gytha pausing to explain the essential fractal nature of reality.

The wizards of Unseen University make an appearance in this book as well, and we find out some interesting details about the youth of Mustrum Ridcully, and that of Esme Weatherwax. We get some great jokes about quantum mechanics and the perils of discussing physics in a world that hasn’t quite invented it yet. We also get to see the magic of witches contrasted with that of wizards, with the note that everyone may be right all at the same time (because that’s the thing about quantum).

We get more of the normal folk of Lancre: from Jason Ogg and his artisan brethren (even if they don’t what an artisan is, much less a rude mechanical), a group of morris dancers prepping a play for the royal wedding (and under no circumstances performing the infamous Stick and Bucket dance); Hodgesarrgh, the falconer whose birds are only adept at maiming him; a cook who doesn’t believe in vitamins; a beekeeper whose trade involves such deep mysteries that he doesn’t feel the need to bow to royalty; a darling chambermaid named Millie with a tendency to bob and mumble. In addition, Jason gets visited by Death, not for the usual reason, but to shoe his horse, Binky — because Jason is the smith of Lancre, and the smith of Lancre can shoe anything, thanks to mysteries passed down to him. (There are a lot of trade mysteries in this book, come to think of it — it’s one of the subtler themes that can get a little lost under the fairy muddle, but there’s definitely quite a lot about the value of collective and hereditary knowledge).

All these disparate pieces weave together so beautifully that you hardly notice until they’ve collided into each other in perfect orchestration. Lords and Ladies is, apart from hitting so many of my favourite buttons, one of the more beautifully constructed books I’ve ever read — mostly because you don’t even think about how beautifully constructed it is unless you really pause to step back from it and consider. It isn’t one of those books that hits you over the head with how precise and meaningful its arrangement is. It slides right by your conscious brain and into your background awareness.

Another thing I like about this book is that the prose gets so elegant in places. Pratchett may be a humour writer, but that doesn’t mean there’s anything unsophisticated about his style — and when he really lets loose, it’s just gorgeous. This post could easily be nothing but my favourite quotes from this book, and it would still be twice as long as any other review. There’s just that much good stuff in there. And he slips in and out of it with such ease, so gracefully — it becomes ludicrous and hilarious again so swiftly, but the poignancy still lingers, trailing on behind you as you keep reading. I can’t resist leaving you with another, so take this last snippet before I wrap things up:

There used to be such simple directions, back in the days before they invented parallel universes – Up and Down, Right and Left, Backward and Forward, Past and Future…

But normal directions don’t work in the multiverse, which has far too many dimensions for anyone to find their way. So new ones have to be invented so that the way can be found.

Like: East of the Sun, West of the Moon.

Or: Behind the North Wind.

Or: At the Back of Beyond.

Or: There and Back Again.

Or: Beyond the Fields We Know.

And sometimes there’s a short cut. A door or a gate. Some standing stones, a tree cleft by lightning, a filing cabinet.

Maybe just a spot on some moorland somewhere…

A place where there is very nearly here.

Nearly, but not quite. There’s enough leakage to make pendulums swing and psychics get very nasty headaches, to give a house a reputation for being haunted, to make the occasional pot hurl across the room.

So. I love this book. If you read only one Pratchett book ever, read this one. If you read only one book about fairies ever, read this one. If you read only one book I recommend, read this one. It’s a masterpiece.

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The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, by Catherynne M Valente

Title: The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making (Fairyland #1)The Girl Who...
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.

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