2016 in [Book] Review Books Middle Grade Reading Themes Young Adult (YA) Literature

A Tribute to Catherynne Valente’s Fairyland Series: Books One To Five


Myra here.

Last year marked the end of Catherynne M. Valente’s Fairyland series. I still contend that among all the five books in the series, it was in the first book that Valente truly revealed her soul, being the most raw and vulnerable. The rest of the books in the series revealed her craftsmanship in worldbuilding and storytelling, as she experimented with form and structure, character and depth.

In this post, I am revisiting all the reviews we have done on the Fairyland series and adding them onto the fifth (and final) book that was just published last year. So we work backwards from the latest book published to the very first one.

girlwhoracedThe Girl Who Raced Fairyland All The Way Home (Book 5)

Written byCatherynne M. Valente
Published by: Atom, 2016 ISBN: 1472112830 (ISBN13: 9781472112835)
Review copy provided by Pansing Books.

For those who may have missed September, A-through-L, and Saturday – be comforted with the knowledge that the original Fairyland team is back in full force here. I enjoyed seeing how much September has grown throughout the novels. In this final one, September needed to prove that she is indeed worthy of being crowned Queen of Fairyland. She also had to contend with the dangers of tyranny and dictatorship (very timely, in truth) and being in combat with friends and foes alike to establish her favourable intentions towards Fairyland. Her parents (and aunt) make a cameo appearance as well, which I found to be quite charming. Rather than a full review, I’ve decided to use a new app that I’ve fallen in love with, Typorama, to insert quotes from the book into lovely images. Here are a few of the really unforgettable ones that made me stop and think.


Indeed, what makes things real? If it isn’t written in any form, then it loses its truth?


Clearly, racing fairyland all the way home requires courage.


Very true, this.


I used my own photo for this last quote. This is a picture I have taken while in Munich. This is our view while having lunch everyday at the Blutenburg Castle where the International Youth Library is housed. A fairytale place. Quite fitting for this review, I thought.

IMG_0294The Boy Who Lost Fairyland (Book 4)

Written by: Catherynne M. Valente
Published by: Corsair, 2015
Review copy provided by Pansing Books.

If you are expecting that the bulk of the book would be about September or Saturday, or even the Marquess – then let me warn you that the story focuses on a totally different set of characters altogether. As the narrator very sagely claims: “A thing too familiar becomes invisible.” (p. 19) – in reference to something else entirely, of course, but I thought it is also apt in talking about beloved characters in a series – that is, if you have good reading stamina and enough emotional quotient to not impatiently flip through the pages looking for something or someone familiar.

In this book, the reader gets to know Hawthorn, a highly articulate troll who was stolen from Fairyland by the Red Wind and whisked to Chicago as a changeling and was given the very human name Thomas Rood. There, he suffers from the very distinct sense that he is not who is expected to be. While his parents insist on the importance of him being a ‘normal’ boy, there was something within him that clawed out to be free:

All his life he had known that something was wrong. It was only that he did not know what it was. He felt all the time as though there were another boy inside him, a bigger boy, a stronger boy, a boy who knew impossible things, a boy so wonderful he could talk to jewels and make friends with fire. But whenever he tried to let that boy out, he was only Thomas, red-faced, sputtering, gangly, clench-fist Thomas. (p. 47)

How he was driven into being a normal boy instead of the Wombat Prince of Chicago as he surely felt he was in his bones – was heartbreaking, with his psychologist father insisting on the boundaries of normalcy and appropriate forms of behaviour. As the narrator pointed out:

… very few humans know about Fairyland – the heart is a Tidiness Engine when it comes to the task of Knowing and Unknowing, and it tends to clear out anything that doesn’t fit with what they’ve read in respectable newspapers and heard from people wearing glasses come springtime. (p. 28)

Despite Thomas-Hawthorn’s sense of isolation and not being right in his skin, he managed to find friends after almost being beaten to a pulp on the first day of school by a bully. He knew how to weave magic with words and how to make “his eyes into deep, endless pools with soft stars in the mud of their bottoms.” More than anything, it was the presence of Tamburlaine that turned the story around for me. I was on the fence about the book for the first quarter of the story, not really knowing how I felt about it. This wooden girl with flowers in her hair and a gramophone for a pet charmed me.


The book also discusses how human changelings who live in Fairyland are treated like slaves with chains and perceived to be the “wrong sort.” The reader sees that there are quite a number of changes in Fairyland as the reader knows it – with the Fairies back and in charge of the lay of the land, a King who wishes to abdicate, and a reclusive Spinster who can help Hawthorn and Tamburlaine make things right again in Fairyland. Where September is in this narrative, I shall leave for you to discover.

I feel that while Valente’s world-building skill improves in each book, there is little heart in the craftsmanship. Perhaps it is because she has poured much of herself in the first book that the reader expects more vulnerability in succeeding installments in the series. But again, who knows what the next books have in store for us?

The Girl Who Soared Over Fairyland And Cut The Moon In Two (Book 3)IMG_7435

Written by: Catherynne M. Valente
Published byFirst published in the US by Feiwel and Friends, 2013; This paperback edition published by Corsair in 2014
Review copy provided by Pansing Books.

I read this novel while I was in snowy Astana, Kazakhstan. I felt that this book was a perfect fit during my travel. Since I had to contend with a lot of Visa issues and a number of immigration policies and checkpoints, I felt a bit like September on the border of Fairyland, with her soul weighed and her papers shuffled and checked before I was stamped, sealed, and finally delivered in Astana. I didn’t have to wear September’s silky black cloak of a Professional Revolutionary, though, something for which I was quite grateful for.

In this third novel, September returned to Fairyland, this time through the irascible and ill-tempered Blue Wind and her exeunt Puffins, battled a Yeti, faced the Moon, and confronted her destiny.

There are several parts of the book that I enjoyed reading, particularly as September came to terms with who she is and what she would most likely become in the future (see below), and how she can write and constantly rewrite her own fate:


September is also coming to terms with what Saturday means to her. While Saturday is pretty much decisive about who he is and what September means to him, our young lady seems a bit conflicted and uncertain. There is something about their parallel meetings that somewhat appealed to me:


And there are also the ruminations about love and what it entails:


Admittedly, this one is my least favourite of the three novels. There was just too much going on, that I found myself having to reread certain sections, sometimes even pages, because I often get lost in Valente’s narrative – and not always in a good way. Like the first two books, there are moments of exquisite insight evident in the story, but they are too explicitly shared here, that it leaves no space for the reader to breathe and make sense of all that is going on. Valente has described everything so vividly that it leaves virtually no room for the reader to navigate around this fantastical land. And once again, there is just something lacking with September that I couldn’t quite put my finger on – from the first book – I simply could not connect to her in an emotional sense. She is there, but not there. I also did not sense growth in her character – except perhaps the clothes that she wears or the people that she meets or maybe her development could be seen as reflected in her childhood friends’ (Ell and Saturday’s) maturity. In Valente’s attempt to provide her with depth and substance, she strikes me as flat and two-dimensional in nature. While Valente went overboard when it comes to the setting and her make-believe creatures that seem like nightmare hybrids – and yes, they are always wise, there seemed to be nothing left for September. Despite this, I am avidly waiting for Books 4 and 5. I am hoping that September’s character would be more nuanced by then.

IMG_7109The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland And Led The Revels There (Book 2)

Written byCatherynne M. Valente
Published by: First published in the US by Feiwel and Friends, 2013; This paperback edtion published in the UK by Corsair, 2014
Review copy provided by Pansing Books.

In this second installment of the Fairyland series, September confronts her own shadow that she has willingly exchanged for a stranger’s freedom in the first book. It is not, after all, something that she would actively miss, like a specific body part, for instance, the absence of which would be keenly felt. Unbeknownst to September who has been gone for over a year, her shadow became quite a force to contend with, not unlike September who has gained back her heart in the time that she was out of Fairyland. And so the battle here is not so much with other creatures, but September’s own shadow, named Halloween, as she establishes her own realm in the underworld, in the fringes, in the shadows of the mainstream overworld that most people are familiar with. Ell’s Shadow describes it in this fashion:

Shadows are where magic comes from. Your dark and dancing self, slipping behind and ahead and around, never quite looking at the sun.

As is the nature of creatures that thrive on darkness, Halloween is prone to excesses. No, she is not as evil as the Marquess, she is still September after all, but kind of like a September Unleashed – without boundaries, reservations, or self-restraint. Here is a description of Halloween – I took a photo of the page and edited it using an iPhone app:


And so, Halloween has been stealing shadows from Fairyland’s creatures through the Alleyman, quite a sinister character as described here. The twist in the character of the Alleyman in the end was something that I did not expect. Halloween’s actions, however, have unforeseen consequences as magic bleeds and is collected in the underworld where the shadows lurk and dance in unbridled revelry.

As a clinician, it makes me wax Freudian as I sense the id-qualities of Halloween, also defined as the seething cauldron of raging impulses and emotions unchecked. Halloween has no super-ego in the least. The novel abounds with Jungian archetypes, but not as self-exploratory as the first book, that struck me more as a psychological excavation of the unconscious.

The narrator remains intrusive, here, but not as annoying as in the first book. An example could be found in the quote below:


There is a foreshadowing of a potentially-much-bigger role that the Narrator might play in September’s yet-unforeseen future.

The Marquess also has quite a significant role here in this book. The reader gets reacquainted with her shadow and September has to work alongside characters and creatures that she has defeated in the first novel, while confronting the shadows of those which she considered and thought of as friends. Valente’s language remains lyrical and beautiful, and there are quite a number of beautiful quotes that I did write down in my little notebook. The quote below also happens to be a favourite:


I enjoyed this second novel more than the first book. There are moments of stand-alone beauty in the narrative that I admired. While not as powerful as the first book in terms of authorial significance, I think this one left the reader pretty much to his/her own devices, allowing the reader to engage more with September, and reflect on the layered metaphors found in the text.

IMG_2377The Girl Who Circumnavigated
Fairyland In A Ship Of Her Own Making (Book One)

Written byCatherynne M. Valente
Published byMuch-in-Little, 2011
Review Copy provided by Pansing Books.

We have given quite a lot of love to this novel here at GatheringBooks. Fats has written quite a detailed review of Fairyland here. And my two book clubs here in Singapore have read this book – which means I have gone through two major group discussions about this novel.

GatheringReaders at the Jurong West Public Library.

GatheringReaders at the Jurong West Public Library.

Saturday Night Out for Book Geeks - my book club with the young-at-heart.

Saturday Night Out for Book Geeks – my book club with the young-at-heart.

This book is a celebration of all things strange, fantastical (I mean, come on, marids and wyverns), with a dab of darkness thrown into the mix; just enough to make the light bounce off and reflect in the most surreal ways but not enough to drown the reader in absolute despair. But there is tragedy here that can be felt, more sensed than read in the literal sense, as Valente explores her own monomyths and allows her intuitive mind to play around. It’s like she gave her inner, pained and cowering seventh-sight (that dwells in some hidden dark part of her) a pen to write – and the results are layers and metaphors and coded imageries that might mean a great deal to her as she makes sense of her own past – and I am sure would prove to be a fascinating read for her therapist. And so there is author intrusion here – as this is about Valente as much as it is about September, the narrator has made certain of that with its insistent voice, its pointed pokes and prods – steering the emotions felt, the direction of the plot, navigating Valente’s uncharted territories, as if afraid that without such an authorial compass, she might get lost in the telling. As a psychologist, I can not help but be riveted by where she seems to be going and what it must have taken her to get there – not just September but Valente herself.

Screen Shot 2014-10-01 at 6.48.41 pm

It was difficult for me to like September. There is very little about her that I can truly connect with – as she seems too fragmented, not really there, always in the process of unraveling – losing her heart, losing her hair, losing her hands, losing her sense of self.

Screen Shot 2014-10-01 at 7.46.03 pm

Then there is Saturday – the marid with the sea in his veins:

Screen Shot 2014-10-01 at 6.50.19 pm

I liked Saturday, perhaps as much as I loved the concept of the wyvern.

Like Stiefvater’s Raven Boys, it also took me awhile to get into this book. But it proved to be an entertaining read, especially as I can not help but perceive the story to be a stained-glass window to the author’s soul.

3 comments on “A Tribute to Catherynne Valente’s Fairyland Series: Books One To Five

  1. I like the pics from the new quote app you discovered. Fancy!


  2. Fascinating reviews! And Typorama looks like a lot of fun 🙂


  3. Great reviews! I need to see this series.


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