Review: The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherynne M. Valente (May 2011)
I don’t like Alice in Wonderland.
There, I’ve said it. Beloved it may be, but this children’s classic never worked for me. I didn’t care for Alice as a character. She seemed to live always in the moment, and I wanted someone with more personality, who could exist outside of Wonderland. So when I heard all the comparisons between Catherynne Valente’s book and Carroll’s Alice, I wasn’t exactly eager to pick it up.
I eventually gave in after watching the book trailer (full credit to Ana Juan‘s illustrations), and I was happy to discover that the similarities between the books are surficial. Like Alice, September gets plucked out of her mundane life (in Omaha, Nebraska) by fantastic creatures (the jacketed Green Wind and flying Leopard). She fights an evil Queen (technically a Marquess), gathers sidekicks—a Marid and a Wyvern who thinks he’s half Library*—and proceeds on mad, whimsical adventures through Fairyland. But the big difference is that September isn’t dreaming, so her actions have consequences. No 1-up mushrooms here. She’s righteous, so she wants to play the hero, yet self-aware enough to know her limitations. On top of that September feels guilty for ditching Omaha without telling her mother.
I can’t remember the last time I read a fantasy book that was so much about choice—no pesky prophecies here! September makes decisions on almost every page, about whether to stay, where to go, who to save or help or defy. And she’s tempted repeatedly with a way out of Fairyland, back to the comfort and safety of home. There wouldn’t be much of a story if she took the offer, so the book has a lot to say about what it means to be brave, and how to pick your fights.
I was also blown away by Valente’s imagination, especially when it comes to names and wordplay. Consider, for instance, the title of Chapter 1: Exeunt on a Leopard. Delicious. Or the Wyvern named A-Through-L, sibling to M-Through-S and T-Through-Z. You can’t speed through this book—it’s something to be read slowly, and savored.
Valente’s working on a sequel, The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There, which should tie up some loose ends left dangling at the end of Ship of Her Own Making. I hope so, anyway, because there was one character introduced at the end whose very existence seemed to scream “look at me! I’m a sequel!” If you want an early peek, Valente’s offering readers a chance to read and critique the work-in-progress. Very tempting…but like September, I’m going to pick the harder path and do my best to avoid spoilers.
“September, really. Which do you think is more likely? That some brute bull left my mother with egg and went off to sell lonemozers? Or that she mated with a Library and had many loved and loving children? I mean, let us be realistic! Besides, everyone says I look just like my father. Can’t you see my wings? Are they not made of fluttering vellum pages? If you squint you can even read a history of balloon travel!”