Saturday, September 14, 2013

Review: The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland... by Catherynne M. Valente

Publisher: Constable and Robinson
ISBN: 978-1780339818

Apologies for shortening the title, it's a bit long for the post title...  Here it is in full:

the GIRL who CIRCUMNAVIGATED FAIRYLAND in a ship of her own making

This is in serious contention for my favourite book of 2013!  You might be able to tell given that this is the longest review I’ve ever written.

Sublime, Charming, Whimsical, Magical, Utterly Brilliant, a work of Genius.  It is light and funny as well as dark and upsetting.  Everything a fairy tale should be!  The cover of the book I have has a quote from Neil Gaiman who calls it ‘Glorious’.  I’m not going to be the one to argue with a giant of storytelling like Gaiman.  Every superlative is well deserved.  I think in years to come this will be a classic and a must read.  I don’t know why this doesn’t have more attention, as I’m writing this there are only 36 reviews on the Amazon UK site!

Short Synopsis: Set during one of the World Wars, September is a Nebraskan 12 year old somewhat heartless girl whose Father is away fighting in Europe and Mother is busy working towards the war effort.  She feels rather abandoned by them and so when a Green Wind comes along and offers to take her to Fairyland she climbs onto his Leopard of Little Breezes and flies away, without even saying Goodbye.  Even getting into Fairyland is an adventure.  Once inside she embarks on a quest that has her crossing and then circumnavigating Fairyland.  She meets incredible characters, all of whom are well drawn and fully developed, even if they are only on a few pages.

It’s blindingly obvious to any reader that Valente has written a brilliant book here.  In the best tradition of fairy tales this has humour, love, friendship, violence, death, good, evil, personal sacrifice, and a little lesson to be learned.  This lesson being that the good and the bad exist in all of us, and nobody is as simple as they seem.  Our heroine is pretty kick-ass and brave, but she is not perfect, other characters have also been given such dual natures, meaning that each is as complex and diverse as any I’ve read anywhere.  Put simply - Valente’s characterisation is phenomenal.

The secondary characters, as I’ve said are complex and form strong bonds with September and the reader.  I loved A-through-L, the Wyverary (half Wyvern, half Library), and Saturday the blue-skinned Marid.  Gleam the lantern and Lye, the woman made of soap. Green and the witches are other favourites.

It’s not just the characters that excel.  Valente’s words are wonderful.  She’s a wordsmith extraordinaire.  The prose is downright lyrical, and a total pleasure to read.  It doesn’t feel like reading at all.  It’s like being wrapped in the softest cashmere, sitting on the squishiest cosiest armchair in front of a fire with a mug of rich hot chocolate.  Even when September’s quest is going badly and all appears hopeless you just can’t put it down.  The pace never lets up from start to finish and not a single word is wasted.  And I haven’t even mentioned that the writing style is incredible.  There are quotable passages to be had on nearly every page.  I have listed a few of my favourites below.

"She sounds like someone who spends a lot of time in libraries, which are the best sorts of people."

"... September read often, and liked it best when words did not pretend to be simple, but put on their full armour and rode out with colours flying."

"though you can have grief without adventures, you cannot have adventures without grief."

"When you are born," the golem said softly, "your courage is new and clean.  You are brave enough for anything: crawling off of staircases, saying your first words without fearing that someone will think you are foolish, putting strange things in your mouth. But as you get older, your courage attracts gunk, and crusty things, and dirt, and fear, and knowing how bad things can get and what pain feels like.  By the time you're half grown, your courage barely moves at all, it's so grunged up with living. So every once in a while, you have to scrub it up and get the works going, or else you'll never be brave again."

"And it's the wonders I'm after, even if I have to bleed for them."

"luck can be spent, like money; and lost, like a memory; and wasted, like a life."

"As all mothers know, children travel faster than kisses.  The speed of kisses is ... a cosmic constant.  The speed of children has no limits."

"September could see it. She did not know what it was she saw.  That is the disadvantage of being a heroine, rather than a narrator."

"The trouble was, September didn't know what sort of story she was in.  Was it a merry one or a serious one?  How ought she to act?  If it were merry, she might dash after a Spoon, and it would all be a marvellous adventure, with funny rhymes and somersaults and a grand party with red lanterns at the end.  But if it were a serious tale, she might have to do something important, something involving, with snow and arrows and enemies.  Of course we would like to tell her which.  But no one may know the shape of the tale in which they move."

Valente uses little tricks to engage the reader, though it never feels gimmicky.  One that springs to mind is the narration.  Valente herself is the narrator and from time to time she talks about the nature of Authors and Readers.  These little asides are inspired and really help to pull you further into the story and give it added meaning (just read some of the quotes above).  I also adored the illustrations and the teasers at the start of each chapter.  Valente gives you a sneak preview of what’s to come without giving away too much.

Who would it suit?  It’s multi-layered story-telling at it’s best, and suggests to me that young children, young adults and adults would each see something different.  For young children it’s an exciting adventure with interesting characters, young adults may see additional levels and for adults it has much more to offer.  I loved the idea of having your courage washed clean.

What I loved – Everything, but especially the narration and brilliant characters.

What I hated – Nothing. At all.

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