September is a twelve-year-old girl from Omaha. Her dad is fighting in a faraway war, her mum is always out at work, and September is stuck in a lonely, adventureless rut. So when the Green Wind arrives at her window and invites her to Fairyland, she accepts in a flash. (Mightn’t you?)
But Fairyland is in crisis and confusion, crushed by the iron rule of the villainous Marquess – and September alone holds the key to restoring order. Well! She knows what a girl with a quest must do: she sets out to Fix Things.
With a book-loving dragon and a mysterious boy named Saturday by her side, September faces peril and pandemonium; loses her shadow, her shoe and her way – and finds a great deal more besides. But time is short, and time is ticking, and every story must have an ending. Can September save Fairyland? Can she even save herself?
Catherynne M. Valente is a name it’s hard to miss in the SFF community. She’s been twice nominated for a Hugo, won both the Tiptree and the Andre Norton Award and has won or been nominated for numerous other awards. She’s also one of the SF Squeecast regulars, a podcast I listen to with pleasure every month. I follow several bloggers who adore her writing, such as The Booksmugglers and The Little Red Reviewer. Still, despite reading rave reviews and having my interest peaked every time I did so, I never got around to reading any of Valente’s work. Until now that is. And after having finished The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, all I can say is “WOW!” and “Now I get it.” I was blown away by this book and Valente’s writing and story-telling.
The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making – hereafter referred to as The Girl Who… – is gorgeously written. Its prose is stunning and was made for reading aloud, chock-full of alliterations, rhyming and just generally beautiful passages. And that is just the words on the page; the text is heavily layered with different meanings. Plus there are lovely allusions to other classical works such as The Wizard of Oz, The Chronicles of Narnia, Alice in Wonderland and Peter Pan. I had a lot of fun spotting these and making the connections. The Girl Who… would probably be a very rewarding book to reread, as I’d guess you’ll find new things in it every time. The narrative is also quite self aware, with a narrator that addresses the reader directly and talks about the conventions of story-telling and warns the reader when he is about to break them. I really liked this aspect and the narrative voice, which was warm and at time gently mocking the goings-on in the book.
September is a great character. She is not such a saccharine-sweet girl as one often saw in more classic children’s novel, but one with a bit of bite to her or as the Green Wind put it, ‘an ill-tempered and irascible enough child.’ I loved that September is described as Somewhat Heartless, and Somewhat Grown and the book’s explanation of how all children start out heartless and only because of this can they act like children. And her voyage through Fairyland seems to have grown her heart as well, as she never once considers abandoning her friends—well, not for very long anyway. She’s a girl that takes matters into her own hands and she’ll be the hero of her own tale, thank you very much, though she is glad for the help of the friends she makes along the way. Her friends are delightful. A-Through-L, the wyverary completely stole my heart and I loved his dual nature, how could I not love the child of a wyvern and a library! Saturday, the Marid, was interesting and another creature that has two sides to him. Mostly he is a sweet, shy creature, but when he is challenged for a wish he becomes scary and ferocious. Unlike in Alice in Wonderland, where all grown-ups are either bad guys or mad, in The Girl Who… grown-ups aren’t made into the bad guys. No, the villain in this plot, The Marquess, is a little girl too. This a tale of growing up and finding independence without having to vilify all adults, even if they leave you alone to go to war, like September’s father, or are at work all the time, like her mother. In The Girl Who… the adults are normal people – relatively though, I mean, how normal is a witch? – who can be good or bad, kind or unkind.
The Girl Who… is a story for all ages. Younger children will just see the exciting story, the quest September undertakes, while teens will perhaps see a little deeper into the story and see its wisdom about growing up. And for adults there are different layers again: the impact of the loss of a parent, how destructive our modern-day corporate and bureaucratic world is to a free spirit and that in the end life is all about losing and finding your way again, sometimes with the help of (unexpected) friends.
The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making is a fantastic story and one anyone who loves fairytales and classical children’s books such as The Chronicles of Narnia and The Wizard of Oz shouldn’t miss. I can’t wait till the girls are old enough to read it with them – or until the book, hopefully, is translated into Dutch, which means we’ll get to read it sooner – as September is a heroine they could do worse than emulate. This one of the best books I’ve read so far this year and I wouldn’t be surprised to see it show up in my year’s end list. It also means I’ve found yet another writer whose backlist I need to read! The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Makingis out in paperback in the UK from Corsair on June 7th.