Cannonball Read IV: The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherynne M. Valente
I'd say fantasy is my favorite genre, particularly stories that focus on a young child whisked away to another land (hopefully magical) where they make friends, learn new abilities and their courage is tested by a nefarious antagonist. There are many stories that follow this template, of course, but few that manage to do it well. I was delighted to find that Catherynne M. Valente's The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making (quite the mouthful) is one of these few stories.
September is a twelve year-old girl living in Nebraska who mainly keeps to herself since her father is away at war and her mother works long hours in a factory. One lonely night she is visited by the chivalrous Green Wind and his traveling companion/steed, the Leopard of Little Breezes. He invites her to Fairyland and she easily accepts, even neglecting to wave goodbye to her mother and little house. The Green Wind takes her to a city in the clouds where she must unlock the world's internal puzzle in order to enter Fairyland. Once in Fairyland, she meets a number of interesting characters, such as the two witch sisters Hello and Goodbye and their husband (yes, they are bigamists), the young werewolf Manythanks. The witches lament the loss of their magic spoon which allows them to cook up the future and September offers her services to find it, knowing that, according to her beloved stories, every child must take up a quest while in Fairyland. Along the way, she befriends a gentlemanly wyvern named A-through-L (with a library for a father, natch) and Saturday, a boy-djinn born from the desert and the sea.
However, September soon finds that not all is well in Fairyland. The wings of her beloved A-through-L, as well as the fairies, have been bound with hard iron. The rivers, normally gushing with tea, have been drained and replaced with ordinary murky water. Everyone is required to be nice or suffer severe punishment. These changes have been enacted by the Marquess, a hardhearted young monarch with blonde curls and a remarkable hat. The citizens of Fairyland are terrified of her and speak nostalgically of the prior ruler, the good Queen Mallow, who mysteriously disappeared. September is eventually tricked into the service of the Marquess, who commands her to find her mother's sword in the treacherous Worsted Wood. During their journey, A-through-L and Saturday are abducted by the Marquess and taken to the lonely Gaol, a fortress in the middle of the ocean. September must rush to find the magical object, build a ship literally of herself and navigate to the Gaol in order to save her friends and confront the Marquess, where we learn her history and true identity.
The characters are beautifully fleshed out; September is a thoughtful girl who seeks her own adventure, craves friendship, and discovers that she is much braver than she thought. A-through-L and Saturday are gentle and loyal friends, while the Marquess is a frightening yet sympathetic figure. Even the narrator, witty and omniscient, recounts the story with a twinkle in his/her eye. The other star of the book is the language. Simple yet profound, Valente's prose is lovely and heartbreaking (and slightly subversive at times). For example, once September bids her personal Death farewell:
She certainly did not see Death stand on her tip-toes and blow a kiss after her, a kiss that rushed through all the frosted leaves of the autumnal forest but could not quite catch a child running as fast as she could. As all mothers know, children travel faster than kisses. The speed of kisses is, in fact, what Doctor Fallow would call a cosmic constant. The speed of children has no limits.
Overall The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland was a wonderfully whimsical read and is a deserving addition to the roster of child-transported-to fantasy-land stories. This one's definitely going on my book shelf.
For more of Helena's reviews, check out her blog, Scholarly Knits.
This review is part of Cannonball Read IV. Read all about it.