Saturday, April 9, 2016

The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making

Catherynne M. Valente's The Girl Who Circumnavigate Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making continues the story retroactively begun in the prequel The Girl Who Ruled Fairyland --- For a Little While, which I quite enjoyed. That is, the story of Fairyland continues. The titular girl has changed.

Our new heroine is September, who falls for the traditional abducted-by-fairy tropes, but only to a point. She is a modern heroine, quite practical, definitely in the vein of Alice (of Alice in Wonderland), blending an ability to go-along with the silly nonsense around her --- which often subtly or not-so-subtly mocks the nonsense of adults in the real world --- with a stubborn determination and fierce loyalty to her friends. For example: September happens across some indentured-postdoctoral research Fairyland residents, and when she calls one out on evading her questions, the response includes:
We were only told to feed you up and send you into the woods. No one tells us anything unless it's 'Mix up Life-in-a-Flask for me, Citrinitas!' 'Bake me a Cake of Youth, Trinny!' 'Grade these papers!' 'Watch that beaker!' 'A monograph on the nature of goblins' riddles, Ci-ci!' I swear to you, I am finished with postdoctoral work! (p. 136)
September knows that fairies are tricky, and listens carefully to subtle rules and sneakily-worded conditions. ("Hello, I believe we have an utterly unique specimen on our hands: a child who listens" observes a quest-giver on p. 31.) But fairies know about these fairy-tropes, too:
If it will make you feel better, I can lead you to a pit in the forest or steal your breath or whatever it is I might --- and I'm not admitting to anything --- have done in my profligate youth. (p. 106)
The book is infused with this self-awareness, it is a fairytale which knows about fairies and fairytales and breaking the fourth wall, and gently does it all over again, in a triumph of marvel, whimsy, and intelligence.

Valente's writing-magic has worked on me again. The story is unpredictable in a way that Alice in Wonderland is not (either because I have been repeatedly inoculated to its style by indoctrination from an early age, or because Valente is a modern writer with a better sense of what my readerly expectations may be, and this a better handle on how to shrug them off and go somewhere new, unexpected, and fantastic). I proselytize these books, and D. reported that they not only describe but also recreate the sensation of childhood, the curiosity and bewilderment and astonishment and uncertainty and pure, untrammelled joy.

Some marvelous bits that I highlighted:

  • "One can never see what happens after an exeunt on a Leopard. It is against the rules of theatre. But cheating has always been the purview of fairies, and as we are about to enter their domain, we ought to act in accordance with local customs." p. 15
  • "But even the wisest men may die, and that is especially true when the wisest of men has a fondness for industrial chemicals. So went my mother's patron, in a spectacular display of Science." p. 39
  • On p. 161, the following exchange:
    "... I cannot begin to imagine what you are!"
    "WHO!" bellowed the shoes, hopping upright, straps flapping in indignation. "What is an indirect dative reserved for things. I am alive! I am a WHO. Or a whom, if you must."
And on breaking the fourth wall:

  • "no one may know the shape of the tale in which they move." p. 35
  • "September could not see it. ... That is the disadvantage of being a heroine, rather than a narrator." p. 171

The climax and ultimate problem (and resolution) of this book were excellent, just full-on capital-Q Writing of Quality. Not at all what I expected, based on the hints dropped and clues collected. As with all of Valente's writing, this gripped me in unexpected ways, and was tremendous fun. I highly recommend.

This post's theme word is allochthonous, "originating in a region other than where it is found." The allochthonous girl circumnavigated Fairyland.

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