Literary Matters: Catherynne M. Valente’s Fairyland novels

The Girl Who Circumnavigated FairylandTwisted fairy tales, revisions and reversions of old legends and mythologies, turning everyday life inside out and at odd angles to itself, bringing Old Magic into a Today World–it’s all the province of names like Neil Gaiman, Terry Pratchett–and Catherynne M. Valente. As with those authors, Valente has already established cross-media ties; notably, songs by the popular singer/songwriter S.J. Tucker. And these authors share yet another and perhaps most critical similarity: their work is often shelved in the young adult section of library and bookstore alike, a grievous error in my opinion–because it means more mature-than-young adults are missing out on something wonderful.

Valente’s work spirals layer upon layer in these two cheerful-yet-serious books. The first in the series, The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland In A Ship Of Her Own Making, starts us off with a view of September, a young girl with a mole on her cheek and “very large and ungainly” feet. September, surrounded by über-kitchy yellow and pink teacups, is visited by the Green Wind on the twelfth birthday. He calls her an “ill-tempered and irascible enough child”, declares that he likes her for it, and whisks her away into a thoroughly bizarre adventure.

September could never be called a pert or perky heroine. Growing up in Omaha, Nebraska during the days of World War Two, with a mother who repairs airplane engines, has made September solid and grounded and pragmatic; she’s not terribly pretty and she’s not terribly polite–but neither is she rude, spoiled, or mean hearted. In her journeys, she deals with talking leopards and witches, a Wyverary (the child of a Wyvern and a Library) and a Marquess, and a host of other odd creatures, and is–mostly–polite without being overly submissive. She encourages herself, when faced with frightening situations, with thoughts like “Be bold. An ill-tempered child should be bold.”

The prose is also deceptively simple with a hidden punch. Valente has a way of taking accepted concepts and turning them about a few times, until the base word itself is redefined. For example, her gargoyles are far more than grim stone statues:

“At the top of the podium loomed an enormous gargoyle, its face a mass of bronze and black rock, waggling stone eyebrows and a stern metal jaw….The creature’s chest was plated in gnarled, knuckled silver, half open along a thick seam, showing a thudding, white-violet heart within.”

In the phrasing and the pacing and the various conceits, this is definitely a young adult book; and yet, adults can easily, in reading this, be drawn back into their own younger days of reading wildly implausible, enchanting tales by names like Maurice Sendak and Tove Jansson. As with many other authors of the fantastical, Valente uses the frame of “normal” life to set apart September’s special adventures; in each book, September starts out in that yellow and pink life, and at the end, returns to it with a new appreciation of the magic in her own world.

In the first book, Circumnavigated, any trace of “inner-ordinary” is rather promptly knocked out of September on her arrival in Fairyland. She is separated from her friend, the Green Wind, at the gates; dumped into an angry sea; forced to choose between multiple unpleasant options (To Lose Your Way; To Lose Your Life; To Lose Your Mind; or To Lose Your Heart–which one would you have chosen, I wonder?); faces off with a group of witches and a wairwulf; and is sent off on a basic find and retrieve quest (much more fun for her than scavenging gold on the beaches of Fairy). The quest, of course, turns out to be much more complicated than she expected, with higher stakes. By the time September goes home, she’s saved the entire of Fairyland, become very much her own person–and given away her shadow.

TThe Girl Who Fell Beneath FairylandIn the followup,  The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland And Led The Revels There, September must face the consequences of her previous adventures, both in her “normal” life:

“Where once September seemed merely and quietly odd, staring out the window during Mathematics lectures and reading big colorful books under her desk during Civics, now the other children sensed something wild and foreign about her. The girls in her grade could not have said what it was about September that so enraged them….”

…and in Fairyland itself, once she finally manages to return (on her thirteenth birthday, as the first visit came on her twelfth):

“Nothing had a shadow. Not the trees, not the grass, not the pretty green chests of the other birds still watching her, wondering what was the matter….A glass leaf fell and drifted slowly to earth, casting no dark shape beneath it.”

Shadows are disappearing throughout Fairyland, and September is quick-witted enough to figure out that she herself started the entire mess when she gave away her shadow; of course that sets her onto another mad Quest, this one rather more personal than the one in the first book. She’s caused this trouble, and she must clear it up herself.

Within a few pages of entering Fairyland, September is faced with another four-way choice, this time between The Sibyl of Comfort, of Comeuppance, of Cruel-But-True, and of Complexity. In her encounter with her chosen Sibyl are some eminently quotable lines:

“Work is not always a hard thing that looms over your years. Sometimes, work is the gift of the world to the wanting.”

“Most folk have three faces–the face they get when they’re children, the face they own when they’re grown, and the face they’ve earned when they’re old.”

September goes on from there to the Underworld, more determined than ever to return matters to rights. She quickly meets up with the Shadows of the wyverary and the Marid she traveled with in the first book, and must struggle with her instincts as to whether they can be trusted. They’re so much like her old friends, and yet–as shadows tend to be–so very different. The entire time they travel together, the shadows try to convince her that it’s a wonderful thing for shadows to be free from their erstwhile hosts; September, of course, tries to convince the shadows of the exact opposite.

This second book has darker elements than the first; there is a mysterious, horrid Alleyman roaming about, who steals shadows from the surface world. Even denizens of the Underworld are afraid of him, and rightfully so. He’s a dreadfully spooky character.

Undercurrents seep through from the war in the real world–September’s father is a soldier; when September disappeared, her mother had just come out of the house in tears. Was he lost in action? Increasingly ominous references to September’s father are slipped throughout to keep this question in the reader’s mind. It’s an engaging tale for a young adult; a fantastically complex story from an adult perspective.

The most remarkable thing to me about these two books, however, isn’t the strong, unique characters or the delightfully implausible layering of the plot; it’s that the books  are written in a madcap omniscient style that by all rights should not work–but does. It’s more than easy to fall into the moment and accept the dizzyingly frequent changes in camera view as a matter of course. Done poorly, this technique is a lead brick that keeps the story from going anywhere at all; done well, it’s very nearly invisible. Valente, of course, goes the latter road, and creates a shining gold and gemstone laden bridge into her fantastical, bizarre, wonderful version of Fairyland.

Valente’s earned a permanent place on my shelves, and I plan on filling said shelves up with more of her work very, very soon. I strongly recommend you do the same.

Valente’s truly stunning Web site can be explored here; her musical ally S.J. Tucker is over thisaway; and her publisher is here. A review of the next book in this lovely series, The Girl Who Soared Over Fairyland and Cut The Moon in Two, is posted over here.

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