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

I was an avid Oz reader once upon a time. I didn’t just read the first book, or the first few. I read every single Oz book L. Frank Baum put out, and they got strange toward the end. Yes, strange in the context of a world that gave us the Gump, the Cuttenclips, and Dunkiton. I read a lot of his other stuff, adventures in Mo and Yew and so forth. I hated the musical as a child because it was so dreadful to the real content of the book (less of an idealist in my old age, I now hate the movie because it’s godawful, instead). I felt about the non-Baum books the way the Council of Nicea did about the Arian heresy.

What I mean to say is that I’m well-versed in turn-of-the-century American fairy tales, and I must admit I’m impressed  that Catherynne M. Valente managed to write one about a hundred years off the usual target. (I guess it was the turn of a century. Does that count?)

I speak of The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making. I am of the belief that it needs no introduction, if only because it’s the kind of book you can get along with just fine without being on a first-name basis, and it won’t mind when you have to ask at the end of the evening. The internet loves it some Fairyland. If you need to know the history, Cory Doctorow will gladly tell you.

The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making is about a little girl named September, who has read a great number of books and is a little on the heartless side. September is a brave and troublesome child with an eye to adventure who’s quite willing to hop out her window and follow the Green Wind to Fairyland, atop the Leopard of Little Breezes. There, she accepts a mission of import from some witches, befriends a Wyverary (his mother was a wyvern and his father was a library, and he sort of steals the book), develops a more complicated relationship with her shadow than is at all usual, and, well, so forth. She matches wits and swords (eh, sort of) with the wicked Marquess, who has a very fine hat and is a leading cause of harrowing quests. If that makes sense to you, you’re entirely my sort of person.

But it’s being vastly unfair to The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making (I just never get tired of the full title) to present it as merely a wonderful and surprisingly late contribution to the Victorian fairy tale lexicon. It has a host of bizarre creatures and a world that’s deeply wonderful and deeply frightening and charming, verbose turns of phrase and altogether everything it would need to hang out with the works of Baum and Carol. But it’s by no means confined to those circles.

This is a great book for Valente Monsters, some of my favorite things in the world of books. Like the monsters who turned up in The Orphan’s Tales and Dirge for Prester John, most of the creatures of fairyland come right out of myths, as opposed to the critters of Oz and Wonderland, who principally came out of the author’s imaginations. I love the way Valente plays with stories, not to mention draws on a whole lot of non-European traditions. One of the book’s heroes is a very aquatic sort of marid (blue djinni being variable creatures even in their own stories) and another major figure is a golem, and there’s a pooka and any number of tsukumogami. The dreams of the whole world are solid things in Fairyland.

And everything about fairyland is pretty solid, all told. Magic works wonders, but so does plucky cleverness and clockwork. It’s a very real world, wyveraries notwithstanding, and things tend to happen exactly as they ought. Little girls who are wont to be adventuresome and difficult get to have difficult adventures.

The text of fairyland has been around a long time, as the book first came to be online, but it looks very lovely in its shiny red book. There are beautiful illustrations that really capture the tone of things by Ana Juan that mix the old Oz-ish influences with the new worlds to be found in Valente’s writing. There’s also a shiny audiobook, read by the author, which I have yet to acquire. (I know when I read it to my youngest sister, something of a September herself, the Green Wind sounds like an antebellum southern aristocrat and Saturday the marid glugs a bit, and I’ll be interested to see how well my ideas match up.) there’s an awesome little scavenger hunt of a story, “Nine Lessons from a Wyverary Governess,” with bits and pieces hidden around the internet. S.J. Tucker, who has collaborated with Valente on projects before, has already put out one Fairyland song, and there are more to come, I believe. There seems to be no end of Fairyland goodness (sequels are planned!), and thank whatever powers that be for that.

Altogether, it is my firm opinion that all things Fairyland cannot be appreciated enough, and you should go and acquire some immediately, if you haven’t already done so. The writing is top-notch, melding Valente’s always poetic language to a perfect encapsulation of the ebb and flow of a Victorian fairy tale. The characters are all excellent, from the everygirl heroine with a missing shoe to the scheming overlady. The story is everything a fairy story ought to be, all full of quests and monsters. And the world? Oh, Fairyland! I gave up on getting to Oz when I was about September’s age, I’m sorry to say. All my attempts failed and it got very discouraging. But now I’m looking out for any notably breezy leopards.


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