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

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

Publisher: Corsair
Pages: 328 (Paperback)
Form: Novel
Series: Fairyland #1

Rating:

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 villanous 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?

Eeeee! (That’s my excited noise) How could I not pick up a book with a title that awesome? It’s been on my wishlist since it was first drawn to my attention, so naturally as soon as I spotted a copy in the bookshop I just had to buy it. And I am so, so, glad I did, and that I’m such a shallow reader easily swayed by a pretty cover and a wonderful title, because boy did this book live up to both. I do get the feeling that it’s probably one of those that you either love or you feel distinctly ‘meh’ about, but for me it really worked. I found it a lovely, charming, clever little fairytale and a perfect book to wrap up my summer-holiday children’s book binge.

I haven’t read anything by Valente before but she’s definitely going on my list of authors to check out (in fact I’ve already ordered myself a couple of her earlier books). The writing, which so easily could have felt forced, overblown, or patronising, was just beautiful. It’s almost a book to be read aloud – and I would definitely recommend it as a bedtime-story read for children. The omniscient third person narrator frequently interrupts the story to explain, to reflect, to apologise, and to almost have a conversation with the reader. It’s a style that is so so hard to get right and that I’m always a bit sceptical of but is just pulled off to perfection here. And the ideas… Valente has one hell of an imagination. I absolutely loved her vision of Fairyland; it’s just brimming with original and unusual characters. Where it possibly falls down if you’re not immediately enamoured with the beautiful prose is that it’s slow to get to the point. For a little while after September steps out of her window and runs away to Fairyland things are a little confused, without any clearly defined plot beyond stumbling blindly around the strange setting. But the initial, seemingly random, encounters do in fact lead into a bigger story, and a pretty good one at that, with magic spoons, despotic dictators, and herds of wild bicycles. You’ve just got to be a bit patient before it unfolds.

If I had to compare this with other books it’s a little like a modern Alice in Wonderland orWizard of Oz. A young girl gets sent to a strange land where she meets many strange and non-human people and has many strange adventures. It’s a million times better written and more interesting than The Wizard of Oz though and has a million times more of an overarching plot tying it together than Alice in Wonderland (no disrespect to Alice which is a great book too). The character of September also feels a more fully fleshed out lead than either of those others. She’s not too saccharine and sweet or unbearably precocious but there is something rather special about her never the less. She’s a practical, smart, determined girl who takes charge of her own adventures. She also isn’t remotely close to ‘perfect’ but grows and changes over the course of the story. Initially ‘somewhat heatless’ (all children start off heartless but grow hearts at different rates as they grow up) she initially doesn’t think twice about not explaining or saying goodbye to her factory-working mum or soldier father  but she does feel the niggling guilt throughout the story and by the end of the book she seems to have a very big heart indeed. But although she’s grown as a person this isn’t done through any of the usual sickening lectures or ‘special lessons’, just natural gradual character progression and reaction to the world about her. Despite the big fairy tale themes of friendship and love and bravery, this book never even comes close to ‘preachy’. And although September’s not quite like any twelve-year-old I know she feels real as a character (note: I know very few twelve-year-olds).

My favourite character though would have to be Ell or, to give him his proper name, A-Through-L the Wyverary. An adorably friendly and knowledgable (on any subject starting with A-L at least) Wyvern who claims to be half-library. I’m sure I’m not alone in finding him my favourite but he’s just such a wonderful creation and an absolute sweetheart.

It’s a very odd, rather whimsical, little book; one I’m not sure what I would have made of as a child but one I absolutely adore as a twenty-four-year-old. It’s definitely a children’s book, no doubt about that, but I do think it contains something for every age group. I wouldn’t have appreciated the narrator’s humour quite so much or picked up as much on some of the themes or references when I was younger, and I’ll probably pick up more on a few others if I’m ever a parent, but it’s a book that can be enjoyed, I think, on many different levels. It was just an absolute joy to read and a book I can see myself coming back to and rereading during my ‘downs’ .

All that’s left to say really is bring on book two in January. Can’t wait.

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