REVIEW: The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland In A Ship Of Her Own Making – Catherynne M. Valente

Author: Catherynne M. Valente (website / twitter)

UK Publisher: Constable and Robinson

Genre: Fantasy, fairy tale

See Also: Space Opera

September is a twelve-year-old girl, Somewhat Grown and Somewhat Heartless, and she longs for adventure. So when a Green Wind and a Leopard of Little Breezes invite her to Fairyland – well, of course, she accepts (mightn’t you?). When she gets there, she finds a land crushed by the iron rule of a villainous Marquess – she soon discovers that she alone holds the key to restoring order. As September forges her way through Fairyland, with a book-loving dragon and a boy named Saturday by her side, she makes many friends and mistakes. But while she loses her shadow, her shoe and her way, she finds adventure, courage, a rather special Spoon, and a lot more besides…

I first heard of this story many years ago when it was being published online for free. I meant to read it then, but I didn’t. Then I heard it got picked up by a publisher, and I meant to read it then, but I didn’t. Then I discovered a website which promotes empowering and inspiring literature, media and activities for girls (A Mighty Girl), and it was recommended there, and I meant to read it then, but I didn’t. Basically this is a long story about a book I’ve known about and wanted to read for a long time, but never got around to until my friend provided me with a copy, and it became my Christmas read, which feels like the perfect time to read a brand new fairy tale. Perhaps the only better time would be Autumn, because there is a certain magic in Autumn within this book, and the heroine is called September.

Surprisingly, however, this isn’t an easy book to read. Valente is a very skilled writer, and the tonal and stylistic differences between this and Space Opera were pretty amazing. They’re so different, but both so wonderfully written to fully fit the style of the story they are telling. Which was perhaps where I struggled with The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland. Valente manages to completely and entirely assume the narrative voice of a traditional fairy tale, perhaps in the style of Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan, or The Water Babies, and it’s perfect, but it’s also quite a hard narrative style to get to grips with. It doesn’t pull you along, and it sort of just strolls along with you and expects you to set the pace of the story. And it’s quite a long book to have that sort of narrative style – Alice In Wonderland is extremely short, while I will be honest I never finished The Water Babies simply because all the attempts I made when I was younger were scuppered by it being so dense and prosaic. The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland definitely isn’t prosaic, but it can be dense, and it’s a book you have to work at reading. This isn’t a bad thing, but it didn’t make for a quick read. It also meant it was hard to be gripped by it.

Perhaps this is because of the slightly detached nature of the narrator, making it clear that a story is being told, and creating a further step of distance between the characters and the reader. This meant that I found it hard to perhaps connect with them in the way I do in other books, and that meant I struggled to become too invested in the outcomes and relationships. The narrative was pitch-perfect for a fairy tale, but often in fairy tales we aren’t really connecting with characters at all, but tropes and morals, which is why they’re so short. In novels, characters are who we travel with and get to know, but with the filter of a narrator posing the premise of the story we are that much further away from them. I think this is perhaps another reason I found it a little harder going than other books.

That isn’t to say I didn’t like it. There’s a lot to love in it. The whimsy and ideas are utterly delightful. I was firstly taken by September’s name, and then by the decision to dress her in colours akin to a pumpkin. I adored the wyvern crossed with a library – the Wyvery – A-through-L, with his encyclopaedic knowledge of the first third of the alphabet. The patterns of speech were wonderful as well, with the perfect pragmatism which comes from a fairy tale. I loved the idea of the marids, magical people who know their future because their timelines swirl like currents so they can meet their own children when they are children themselves. And I really enjoyed the discussions and mechanics of the different ways children can find themselves in fairyland, whether through fairy rings, magic wardrobes, or changeling exchange programmes.

I was a little uncomfortable with September’s route of entry – that of the ‘ravished’. For this Valente cites Persephone, girls stolen away for love and who then must split their future between two worlds. This is a little awkward, as at the start of the book we are told September is 12 and she is stolen away by the Green Wind who is… well, old. And while it’s sort of implied that the Green Wind only says that she’s ravished to get her past the fairyland immigration checkpoint, and that perhaps he’s only stolen her away because he’s bored, there are little hints which might suggest otherwise that made me a little uncomfortable. The devotion his coat has to her, the kiss on the cheek – it’s all very small stuff, and perhaps I’m only aware of it as a reader of fanfiction and shipper of rare pairs, so I search for the tiniest clues automatically. Other hints are dropped within the text to September’s future which don’t include the Green Wind, so it’s likely I’m being oversensitive.

This is the first in a series following September’s returning visits to Fairyland, which I am curious about reading but I’m in no rush. I feel like this is the perfect, magical story to read with a child, where you can read a chapter and put it down of a night like a bedtime story. It’s ideal for that, with the nature and style of the narrative, but it’s not a story that necessarily grips and pulls you along. It’s magical at its own pace.

Briefly:

  • A pitch-perfect fairy tale, it’s ideal for anyone who loves and knows their stories and their folklore. The voice and ideas are fantastic and whimsical while the tone is spot on.
  • It’s just not quite the most gripping narrative I’ve encountered, and for me I think it was the voice and narrative style preventing me connecting with the characters on the level I need to really sink into a story.
  • September is a wonderful character however, self-possessed and pragmatic, she’s the perfect little girl to lead you through this world. I can really see why A Mighty Girl recommended this book, and I would definitely want to pass it on to any children I know. However, I think perhaps it suffers by being not quite as accessible as Nevermoor: The Trials of Morrigan Crowwhich has a heroine of a similar age if a slightly less romantic disposition.

Rating: 3/5 – I thought this book did a lot of great stuff but I found it quite a hard read, so I’m not sure it’s something I would re-read in a hurry. I’d recommend it wholeheartedly though for anyone looking for a brand new fairy tale.

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