“Once upon a time, a girl named September grew very tired indeed of her parents’ house, where she washed the same pink-and-yellow teacups and matching gravy boats every day, slept on the same embroidered pillow, and played with the same small and amiable dog…”
I did not know about this book until it appeared in my mailbox a few months ago. It was not even the book I was expecting that week, and so it was truly a wonderful surprise when I took it out of its box. With a cover designed by Elizabeth Herzog and Barbara Grzeslo featuring a young girl and a dragon, and a title that was brimming with words, Catherynne M. Valente’s The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making has captured my heart… at first sight.
While a part of me did not want to jump to conclusions about the book (that is to say, be biased and assume that the book was good just by its title), another part of me could not help but get excited over the prospect of travel and adventure. A voyage to Fairyland was to good an offer to decline, especially if it was with a girl named September.
Fairyland – as I shall refer to the book in this review – tells the story of twelve-year-old September who got whisked away to a magical place by means of a Leopard. Trouble was brewing in Fairyland and it was in utmost need of assistance. With the help of a book-loving dragon and a mysterious boy who could grant wishes, September ‘volunteered’ to embark on a quest to retrieve an object for the Marquess before it was too late.
All Things Fantastical (and Familiar)
Fairyland is what I would call a “fantasy medley” of sorts. The illustration of the Marquess on the back of the book jacket reminded me so much of little Alice in Lewis Carroll’s classic tale. My love for Alice in Wonderland was part of the reason why I was drawn to the story. Old favorites never fail.
There were several parallelisms between Fairyland and Alice in Wonderland. September is Alice’s counterpart, the Marquess is the Red Queen’s, and Queen Mallow is the White Queen’s. Both September and Alice are curious and mischievous little girls who eventually found themselves in Her Majesty’s palace grounds. The “spriggan” wedding celebration that September attended reminded me of the tea party with the Mad Hatter. Even the way the Marquess ordered Fairyland creatures around was reminiscent of the Red Queen’s attitude toward her subordinates.
To an extent, Fairyland is not only Wonderland but Neverland as well. While it is far from being a place where creatures cease to age, Fairyland is definitely a magical place that children would like to go to. September’s “exeunt” on a leopard is similar to the Darling children flying out of their window to Neverland. There was also the story of the shadow, both of September’s and Peter Pan’s. Also noteworthy is that the passage of time in both places is ambiguous, although this seems to be a common thing across parallel universes.
Other references to fantasy and mythology include: the closet between two worlds in Fairyland (C.S. Lewis’s The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe), the witches Hello, Goodbye, and Manythanks (the three sisters of Fate, although Manythanks was male), and the Persephone clause (which carries one of the most important aspects in the book and, therefore, need not be expounded on to avoid spoilers).
In addition to all these, Fairyland is a patchwork of magical creatures across cultures. I honestly did not know much about these creatures, and some of them I have not even heard of! (You can imagine how much fun I had doing my research!)
Being a children’s fantasy novel, it should not be a surprise that it has all the elements mentioned above. However, I consider it a drawback mainly because it risks having an identity of its own. That is to say, with all these familiar elements rolled into one, there is the danger of not being able to pull it through in the end. Like the heroine of the book, Fairyland, to me, somehow gets lost in these elements. While reading the book, there were a few times when I felt as if it dissolved in the background because a more familiar story has taken its course.
In spite of that, what I liked about this book is that it is internally consistent. Readers literally follow the journey of a young girl across Fairyland. There is a smooth transition between the chapters, and each reflects the same theme and/or pattern.
Because the Fate of Fairyland Is In the Hands of September
I like September as much as I like Alice. She is an unlikely heroine whose curiosity always gets her in trouble. There is nothing stunning about her, and she is certainly not Fairyland’s ‘knight in shining armor.’ Yet, she is lovable, and definitely one of the most memorable characters I have come across with. (To me, she is up there with Antoine de Saint-Exupery’s the Little Prince and Jerry Spinelli’s Stargirl.)
“One ought not to judge her: All children are heartless. They have not grown a heart yet, which is why they can climb tall trees and say shocking things and leap so very high that grown-up hearts flutter in terror. Hearts weigh quite a lot. That is why it takes so long to grow one… Some small ones are terrible and fey, Utterly Heartless. Some are dear and sweet and Hardly Heartless at all. September stood very generally in the middle on the day the Green Wind took her, Somewhat Heartless, and Somewhat Grown.”
Descriptions of September across the chapters are consistent with her being Somewhat Heartless. At the crossroads, sometime after her arrival in Fairyland, September chose the way that pointed to “losing her heart.” Because she was somewhat heartless, she “felt reasonably safe.”
Although September and the Marquess seemed very much alike, September’s being Somewhat Heartless was what set them apart. This was why the Marquess fits the anti-hero profile perfectly. The Marquess was portrayed as a capricious, selfish brat, and only a Somewhat Heartless child could match that. Another difference between the Marquess and September was that a Somewhat Heartless child would not turn its back from death, and she would always have a thirst for adventure.
“It’s the wonders I’m after, even if I have to bleed for them.”
The reason why I said earlier that September was an unlikely heroine was because of her flaws. She liked to assume things, and it’s just as entertaining to see her get frustrated, as it is to find out how she deals with her problems. She also has a tendency to doubt herself, and appears to need some form reassurance or affirmation.
“In stories, when someone appears in a poof of green clouds and asks a girl to go away on an adventure, it’s because she’s special, because she’s smart and strong and can solve riddles and fight with swords and give really good speeches, and… I don’t know that I’m any of those things. I don’t even know that I’m as ill-tempered as all that… Maybe you meant to go to another girl’s house and let her ride on the Leopard. Maybe you didn’t mean to choose me at all, because I’m not like storybook girls…”
In spite of her flaws, September is a sweetheart. “Somewhat Heartless” is the closest one could get to describe her. Her lack of emotion and indifference might have been due the fact that she always spent time by herself. In reality, she is not heartless at all. Valente brilliantly conceals this by pointing the readers to the other direction. September loved and cared for her friends, even though she was not fully aware of it. Moreover, what started out as a selfish desire for adventures turned out to be a selfless act of courage.
Fairyland is considered middle-grade fiction, and recommended for children aged 10-14 years old. The language and tone used are rather dark for the younger ones, although I don’t see any harm in their reading it. Language used was “old-fashioned” so parents might have to help their kids understand the meaning of some of the words. Overall, Fairyland is a children’s book as much as it is a fairy tale for grown-ups.
Said Valente on the dedication page,
“For all those who walked this strange road with me,
and held out their hands when I faltered.
This is a ship of our own making.”
With 247 pages ahead of me, and in between sleepless nights and domestic chores, I journeyed with them to Pandemonium in this ship of their own making. From the front to the back cover, Fairyland is truly a labor of love, and I am grateful that I got to share the quest with September.
***A million thanks to Macmillan Children’s Publishing and Tara of Zeitghostmedia for providing us a free copy of the book.