The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making (2011)
Written by: Catherynne M. Valente
Pages: 247 (Hardcover)
Rating: 8 – Excellent
Why I Read It: At this point, I’ll pick up any and every novel Valente has ever published, so I had this particular book on pre-order. However, I wasn’t able to read it right away, so it sat patiently until my Alphabet Soup Book Clubbers voted it in as our December book club selection. I was more than happy to finally have a chance to pick this up.
The premise: ganked from BN.com: A twelve-year-old September lives in Omaha, and used to have an ordinary life, until her father went to war and her mother went to work. One day, September is met at her kitchen window by a Green Wind (taking the form of a gentleman in a green jacket), who invites her on an adventure, implying that her help is needed in Fairyland. The new Marquess is unpredictable and fickle, and also not much older than September. Only September can retrieve a talisman the Marquess wants from the enchanted woods, and if she doesn’t . . . then the Marquess will make life impossible for the inhabitants of Fairyland. September is already making new friends, including a book-loving Wyvern and a mysterious boy named Saturday.
With exquisite illustrations by acclaimed artist Ana Juan, Fairyland lives up to the sensation it created when the author first posted it online. For readers of all ages who love the charm of Alice in Wonderland and the soul of The Golden Compass, here is a reading experience unto itself: unforgettable, and so very beautiful.
Spoilers, yay or nay?: Yay, since it is a book club selection, after all. If you want to remain unspoiled, or if you’re just in a hurry, jump down to “My Rating” and you’ll be just fine.
Discussion: So here’s a confession: I’ve never read Alice in Wonderland. If I’ve read any of that book, it’s been little bits for my reading courses during my elementary school years, and the various film adaptations have filled me with various degrees of uncaring and total fright (I remember one, back in the day, of a metal dragon that followed Alice back from Wonderland or something). I’ve also not read Peter Pan, despite seeing various film and musical adaptations of the story, and I’m just happy I’ve actually got The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe under my belt (book and film), because otherwise, I’d feel woefully inept at admiring just what Valente is doing with her children’s book.
The story itself is nothing new: main character is whisked away from her normal, boring life and is deposited into a kind of magical fairyland, in which she has lots of adventures. She is no chosen one, not a girl fated to do something grand, wonderful, and terrifying that saves the world she’s come to visit, and yet, she actually does so. The story that unfolds is actually very interesting, because as September has her adventures, she learns that not everything is as it should be in Fairyland, and as a result, she ends up saving it. Again, I must stress that she’s not meant to do so. The Green Wind, who whisked her away in the first place, didn’t select her because of some ancient edict or prophecy, which is really refreshing, because Chosen One plots are utterly common in fantasy literature no matter what age group is being targeted. Even Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising sequence heavily relies on the Chosen One device so far, and I’m not saying it’s a bad thing. It’s just a nice change to see someone save the world because they want to, because it’s the right thing to do, not because it’s their destiny to do so.
You may recognize the name of the book and the heroine if you participated in 2010′s book club in August, when we read Palimpsest by Valente. In Palimpsest, one of the main characters discovers and falls in love with The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in A Ship of Her Own Making. I love what this says about Valente’s breadth of work: that a children’s book that’s utterly enchanting and has roots in the books mentioned above, was inspired by a book that’s utterly adult, a story where its characters access a different kind of fairyland, one accessible like a sexually transmitted disease. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: just because you’ve read one Valente doesn’t mean you’ve read them all, and even if you don’t like the one you’ve read doesn’t mean you’ll dislike everything by that author. Because short of a serious love for language (I’ve heard Valente called an expert wordsmith, and that’s an excellent description) and a tendency for the surreal and weird, all of Valente’s stories are different.
But I should recant that a bit: all of her stories seem to feature fascinating, unique, and very capable women of all ages.
September’s a great little girl. There are so many wonderful descriptions of her, as well as children in general, that hit the nail on the head and speak to a universal truth in a way I’d never thought of before, and I love that about Valente’s work. And because Valente’s such a stylist and a wordsmith, let’s look at some of my marked passages:
On page 40, when September meets A-Through-L for the first time:
A dragon was starting at her with acute interest, crouching like a cat in the long grass. His tail waved lazily.
That may not sound like Shakespeare to you, but it’s the image it evokes, comparing a dragon (which I don’t tend to be fond of) to a cat (which I adore). By comparing something usually known as fierce to a cuddly animal in this fashion, Valente has sealed my love for this creature. Sure, A-Through-L is still considered dangerous. Just because the tail’s waving around lazily doesn’t mean the crouch is any less a precursor to pouncing. But that’s what makes it such a great description.
Then there was the section with Lye, the golem, where September has her courage, her wishes, and her luck washed. I wish I could just quote all three passages that explain correlate with each thing, and while in actuality I could, I’d rather save the delight for you to discover when you read. However, I will tease you with just one on page 60:
“When you were born,” the golem said softly, “your courage is new and clean. You are brave enough for anything: crawling off of staircases, saying your first words without fearing that someone will think you are foolish, putting strange things in your mouth. But as you get older, your courage attracts gunk and crusty things and dirt and fear and knowing how bad things can get and what pain feels like. By the time you’re half-grown, your courage barely moves at all, it’s so grunged up with living. So every once in a while, you have to scrub it up and get the works going or else you’ll never be brave again. Unfortunately, there are not so many facilities in your world that provide the kind of services we do. So most people go around with grimy machinery, when all it would take is a bit of spit and polish to make them paladins once more, bold knights and true.”
I swear, that passage alone makes me wish that Valente had the kind of following that, say, Neil Gaiman has. Because how can you not love that passage? The ones for wishes and luck are just as inspiring, just as imaginative, and just as honest for their meanings.
Something else that I love about Valente’s writing is how she gets into the heads of all of her characters, no matter how big or small. Here’s a quick bit from the Panther Iago, when he learns September and her company must be off on their quest (page 109):
The Panther Iago regarded them in a vaguely bored way. “But I hoped you’d stay for luncheon,” he purred. “I would have laid my head on your lap.”
“Thank you kindly, but I don’t think I’d like that,” said September brightly.
It’s fabulous because it’s such a cat thing to do: lying one’s head on someone’s lap. Yet because it’s a panther, and because the panther works for the enemy, September’s response is right on: it sounds delightful (if you’re a cat person), but the danger is inherent.
And speaking of cats, I loved this little nod to Schrödinger’s Cat (page 142-143, in reference to September bringing whatever she finds in the casket):
“It’s Queen Mallow’s Sword?”
“No, no, I didn’t say that, did I, girl? I said she claimed it. You can’t claim something that’s already yours. If it’s yours, it’s yours, eh? The casket is really quite clever. I received full marks for it. How shall I explain? It is both empty and full until one person opens it. For when a box is shut, you cannot tell what it might contain, so you might as well say it contains everything, because, really, it could contain anything, see? But when you open it, you affect what is inside. Observing something changes it, that’s a law, nothing to be done. Oh, you’ll see in the morning! How splendid you will find it!”
I love this because it takes a scientific thought-experiment and turns it into a fantastical element. Because really, if you know anything about Schrödinger’s cat, it’s a bit of a mindfuck anyway, so why not stick it in a fantasy where anything goes? (If you don’t know about Schrödinger’s cat, then just click here.)
This book is full of delightful ideas, both big and little. The most startling was touched on at the very end, when Saturday asks if September saw their “daughter. Standing on the Gear.” This was a wonderful surprise, especially since adult readers know this was somehow a by-product of September wrestling Saturday into submission in order to get a wish, and boy oh boy, the metaphor for that is bursting at the seams. At any rate, should that plot-point come back, it’ll be in a sequel.
The last thing I wanted to mention was the genius of having Fairyland beloved queen and the evil Marquess be the same person. The story was wonderful and heartbreaking, and it made all the sense in the world as well, that someone would be so torn, so heartbroken after being yanked out of a perfect life and back into a rather dangerous one that she’d go out of her way to come back, and then after getting back and learning no one remembered her (as she was back in her child form), reaping a retribution on them. Oh, that whole plot point was genius. I loved it to no end.
My Rating: 8 – Excellent
I always hate making my year-end favorites list because I never know what’s going to come out and make me fall in love with it before the year ACTUALLY ends. Valente’s The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland . . . is just one of those books, and it’s a beautiful little read. There are so many things I loved about this book, and even the illustrations were a joy to look at. This book is the absolute polar opposite of Palimpsest, which was utterly adult in its material, whereas this is utterly childlike, in a good way, but it’s ironic, because this book was originally referenced in Palimpsest, before Valente ever wrote it! At any rate, this book certainly deserves a spot on canonical classic fantasy literature along with Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan, The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, The Last Unicorn, and, well, that list goes on. But this book deserves to be there, and now it’s time for me to read The Girl Who Ruled Fairyland — For a Little While (found here; you can also buy it for the Kindle or Nook), which looks to be a prequel to this book, which is fun. I’m certainly going to get the sequel to this book when it comes out later this year, despite being utterly behind on my Valente reading (no kidding — I’ve got at least four books waiting in the wings!). This is an easy book to recommend to anyone who has a soft spot for classic fantasy literature, for stories where fairylands are equally magical and dangerous, for beautiful, imaginative prose and ideas.
Cover Commentary: I love the rich redness of this, though it kept throwing me, as I kept confusing it a bit with the cover for Jo Walton’s Tooth and Claw (cover seen here). That’s probably because both covers feature dragons, and both covers had a great deal of red on them. Still, this is a great cover, and I hope the sequel matches it.