Title: The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making
Series: Fairyland #1
Author: Catherynne M. Valente
Publisher: Feiwel and Friends
Genre: Fantasy, Young Adult, Metafiction
Subgenres: Faux-Victorian Portal Fantasy
Challenge Information: Fantasy Challenge category "Work that has won the Andre Norton Award"
Full Disclosure: As noted before, I am a Catherynne M. Valente fan girl. Deal with it.
September is a girl who longs for adventure. When she is invited to Fairyland by a Green Wind and Leopard, well, of course she accepts. (Mightn't you?) But Fairyland is in turmoil, and it will take one twelve-year-old girl, a book-loving dragon, and a strange and almost human boy named Saturday to vanquish an evil Marquess and restore order.
Not since Oz has there been a land -- or a cast of characters -- so rich and entrancing.
Back in 2009, Catherynne M. Valente published Palimpsest. (My review.) One of that novel's main characters, a woman named November, defines herself by a 1923 novel called The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, one in a series by Hortense Francis Weckweet about a little girl named September who says "Yes!" (enthusiastic consent, so to speak) to adventuring in fairyland, portal-fantasy style. That book is a through-line in November's story of helping to open up a very adult Fairyland to immigration from our world, and judging from the excerpts Valente provided it sounded delightful, full of whimsy and led by a marvelously spunky narrator.
And it didn't exist.
But one experiment in crowd-funding later, it did. Valente wrote it and posted it online; then it won the Andre Norton Award, leading to a contract with a brick-and-mortar publisher. And that resulted in the book I have in my hands right now. A book which completely satisfies all the promise implied in Palimpsest and which I can easily picture becoming a classic of children's literature.
Keeping true to what was implied about it in Palimpsest, Fairyland is set during WWI and is written in the tone of that era's children's literature. Valente is very much present as the Author, frequently breaking the fourth wall to confide in the reader and foreshadow what is coming next. Like the best in children's literature, she presents a fairyland that is full of wonders (a herd of wild bicycles, a wyvern who is the son of a library, and a little boy who met his mother before she gave birth to him, etc.) but also fraught with dangers -- dangers which our child protagonist can meet, but which push her to her limits and beyond.
It's a fairyland that jives with all our stories of fairylands, and when September stands at a crossroads and has to choose between paths "To lose your way," "To lose your life," "To lose your mind" or "To lose your heart" we know exactly which one she will choose -- and the many, many ways her choice is the worst. We know the rules about not eating fairy food and always moving widdershins, and so does September because she's a bookish child; but keeping with the theme of enthusiastic consent she doesn't let those rules or the very real danger stop her when she has to save her friends. And keeping with a theme that Valente often develops, nothing comes without a price, lacing the happiest moments with poignancy.
This is not my favorite of Valente's novels -- I prefer the gloriously ornate nested structure of The Orphan's Tales -- but it is an excellent place to start with her work, presenting glimpses of her absolutely exquisite prose and her deft hand with myth and folklore in a very accessible, downright conventional narrative. It is also the sort of book that the child I once was would have taken to heart and read to pieces; I hope, therefore, that many children get a chance to discover it and read it to pieces in turn.
Overall Satisfaction: ★★★★★
Intellectual Satisfaction: ★★★★1/2
Emotional Satisfaction: ★★★★★
Read this for: The world-building, the characters
Don't read this for: N/A*
Bechdel Test: Pass
Johnson Test: Fail
Books I was reminded of: The actual Victorian(ish) portal fantasies -- The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, The Chronicles of Narnia, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland, etc.
Will I read more by this author? See "Full Disclosure" note.
*I tried. I really tried to come up with a weakness here. But there just isn't one. As I noted over on my personal blog, I prefer to read novels that are less transparent than this one; but in a YA novel I believe transparency is a positive, so I can't fault the prose or structure for that. The characters are wonderful, the themes are wonderful, the plotting is wonderful, there are a million different fantastical ideas. . . just read the thing. I cannot imagine why anyone would dislike it. :)