Author: Catherynne M Valente; Illustrations by Ana Juan
Genre: Fantasy / YA
Publisher: Feiwel & Friends
Publication date: May 10th 2011
Hardcover: 256 pages
Twelve-year-old September lives in Omaha, and used to have an ordinary life, until her father went to war and her mother went to work. One day, September is met at her kitchen window by a Green Wind (taking the form of a gentleman in a green jacket), who invites her on an adventure, implying that her help is needed in Fairyland. The new Marquess is unpredictable and fickle, and also not much older than September. Only September can retrieve a talisman the Marquess wants from the enchanted woods, and if she doesn’t . . . then the Marquess will make life impossible for the inhabitants of Fairyland. September is already making new friends, including a book-loving Wyvern and a mysterious boy named Saturday. With exquisite illustrations by acclaimed artist Ana Juan, Fairyland lives up to the sensation it created when the author first posted it online. For readers of all ages who love the charm of Alice in Wonderland and the soul of The Golden Compass, here is a reading experience unto itself: unforgettable, and so very beautiful.
Stand alone or series: It can be read as standalone but hopefully it will be a series? Pleaaaaase Ms Valente?
How did we get this book: The author made the book available online free of charge, a couple of weeks ago and we rushed to download it. But we will get final copies soon.
Why did we read this book: Because it looked and it sounded great. And it won an Andre Norton Award. Not to mention that it is a Catherynne Valente book.
Ana: I will try my best to be coherent about this book and not to break out the caps lock too much but it will be hard because OH MY GOD. This is the book that rescued me from a horrible reading slump; it is the book that made me realise that Cat Valente is an AWESOME writer (which I already suspected but this settled the matter); it is a book that is so beautifully written and full of incredible imaginative twists and ideas that I constantly had a sense of wonderment reading it; but above all, this is a book I will treasure forever and keep close and go back to, many times in the future. I just know it.
Thea: I have been an unabashed Cat Valente fan ever since I picked up The Orphan’s Tales (thanks to the glowing reviews from trusted bloggers), and I have seriously loved her adult fiction. When Ana sent me an excitable email (replete with many exclamation points and capslocking) that The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland was available for free download, I joined in the jubilation and immediately scurried my way to Ms. Valente’s website. And then I read the book, and then I fell in love. This is the first book from Ms. Valente that I’ve read that doesn’t employ the nested story-within-a-story, alternating chapters, narrators, and storylines – and even without that particular flavor, Ms. Valente’s writing shines. I, like Ana, loved this book, and I, like Ana, plan on rereading and treasuring this gem of a novel countless times over.
On the Plot:
Ana: It opens one fine day, with (The Somewhat Heartless) Twelve-year-old September being invited to visit Fairyland by the Green Wind. She says yes (and how could she not, being a fierce and adventurous girl?) and travels forthwith by means of Leopard (which is obviously, the best way to travel, if you ask me). In Fairyland, she will have many adventures and meet new friends including a half-library Wyvern (who most certainly is NOT a dragon) and a blue boy named Saturday. But also: this is where she might lose many things (including her shadow) and meet the all-powerful Marquess who sends her on a quest to retrieve a mysterious casket and what lies inside may well change Fairyland forever.
I am in AWE, folks, in AWE at Cat Valente’s creativity. This book is so full of wonderfulness that it is difficult to know where to start. Perhaps with the narrative itself, with an omnipotent narrator who sometimes interrupts the story to speak directly to the reader. It is so easy to get this wrong, to have these interruptions jarring and disrupting the narrative but not here: here it works well, and it adds to the story rather than disturbing it.
Then there is the creativity, the imagination: like for example, a creature that believes himself to be the son of a library and another one that is a soap golem; there is a herd of wild bicycles as well as flying leopards.
But this is only SURFACE, because underneath each creature has an underlying idea or concept or issue that is addressed with subtly and beauty: from a search for self-identity (if Wyvern is not the son of a library, then who is he?) to the horrible truths of slavery; from selfless devotion to political unrest. This is a book that celebrates fairytales without ever being derivative and never forgetting that they can be dark and gruesome. It sort of reminds me of Peter Pan and Neverland and how every child wants to visit Neverland and its wonders but let’s not forget: it is indeed a dangerous place inhabited by bloodthirsty people including young boys who are there because their mothers and nannies lost them.
Because in the end, I think that the most important thing to say about The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland is: you cannot have adventures without grief. And there is no shying away from it. But despite the grief and darker undertones, there is a lot of love and friendship here enough to – I can’t resist any longer, allow me to break out the caps lock- FILL MY HEART WITH JOY.
And then, to make things even BETTER, this book has the most amazing illustrations!
I mean, seriously. How can anyone resist?
Thea: Yes, yes, yes. What Ana said. The Girl (I am truncating this title because it is cumbersome to type, and much like September, who loves “A through L” as her friend Wyvern’s name, it is far too many syllables) is a gorgeous, imaginative novel that celebrates the daring-do of youth, the magic of the unknown, and the pitfalls and horrors of power. Also, this is decidedly unlike any other novels I’ve read by Ms. Valente, not only because the narrative style is more traditional, but also because the prose is ever-so-slightly screwball (I mean that in the best way). I completely agree with Ana that the omniscient narrator is a fantastic touch and sets the overall tone for the novel – doing the whimsical, breaking-the-fourth-wall type of narration can easily go so wrong – providing levity and whimsy, but tempered with actual thematic depth (the aforementioned examinations of slavery, of polity, and so on and so forth). This is a tall order, and to accomplish all of that in a children’s book, without ever becoming preachy or ham-handed, or completely frivolous is flabbergasting. I am honestly in awe of how Ms. Valente managed to weave together some of the most absurd story elements (migrating bicycles, hello!) into a cogent, poignant story.
The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland is an amalgam of some of my most treasured stories, conjuring comparisons to The Neverending Story, Peter Pan, but most of all, it feels to me like a modern, more-fun version of Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland – and if anyone is worthy to earn comparison to these classic works of children’s fantasy literature (even surpassing them), it is Catherynne Valente.
On the Characters:
Ana: There is a whole plethora of wonderful characters in The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland and I fell in love with every single one of them. I felt so bad for the lonely Soap Golem who was still waiting for the return of her Queen; I felt tremendously sorry for Saturday and how terrible it was that his entire life was about granting wishes and the horrendous way he was made to grant those wishes. Hey, I even sympathise with the villain, the Marquess, once her full story is disclosed – scrap that: I completely related to the Marquess and her motivations and maybe even rooted a little for her. But just a little.
Then of course, there is September, our main character, who is so fierce and a bit heartless that she leaves her house and her family behind without even thinking twice – but that decision is brought back and thought about throughout the entire book. She is dedicated, extremely loyal, compassionate, creative and just such a cool young heroine.
Thea: Yep, this is another one of those reviews where I am sitting in the back nodding my head emphatically, playing hype-man to Ana’s lead. What she said. I loved the lovely Soap Golem, and I loved SATURDAY, and I loved the Marquess (because, having been something of a heartless child myself, I have a soft spot for characters like this), and I loved A-through-L (or “Ell”) and the Green Wind and the leopard, and of course, more than anything, I loved September. September is not particularly pretty or smart or brilliant, but she is September – a normal, if slightly heartless, little girl from the decidedly unromantic land of Omaha, who is swept up by the Green Wind and embarks on an Adventure (with a capital “A”).
What is not to love about this book, I ask you? Nothing. It is perfect.
Final Thoughts, Observations & Rating:
Ana: The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland is a small beautifully packaged bundle of perfect JOY. It is as awesome as a quest-coming of age story can be and I highly recommend it to everybody who loves fairytales, awesome heroines and beautiful writing. This goes straight into my top 10 of 2011.
Thea: I completely and wholeheartedly agree with Ana. It is a fantastical sort of bildungsroman (I have always wanted to use that word and something about Catherynne Valente encourages one to stretch and use vocabulary outside of one’s daily vernacular), a descriptive fairytale, and an imaginative feast of the bizarre and wonderful. I adored this book, and it too has a locked position as one of my top 10 books of 2011 (even if that is technically cheating since it was published prior to this year).
Notable Quotes/ Parts:
When they are in a great hurry, little girls rarely look behind them. Especially those who are even a little Heartless, though we may be quite certain by now that September’s Heart had grown heavier than she expected when she climbed out of her window that long ago morning. Because she did not look behind, September did not see the smoky-glass casket close itself primly up again. She did not see it bend in half until it cracked, and Death hop up again, quite well, quite awake, and quite small once more. She certainly did not see Death stand on her tiptoes and blow a kiss after her, a kiss that rushed through all the frosted leaves of the autumnal forest, but could not quite catch a child running as fast as she could. As all mothers know, children travel faster than kisses. The speed of kisses is, in fact, what Doctor Fallow would call a cosmic constant. The speed of children has no limits.
And check out the lovely trailer:
Ana: 10 – Perfection
Thea: 10 – Perfection
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