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A quest for any age

January 06, 2013

Reviewed by Mahvesh Murad

Two years ago, writer Catherynne Valente crowdsourced funds for her book The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of her Own Making and published the story online, free to read. The book was then picked up by Feiwel & Friends for publication, targeting 10- to 14-year olds. It then debuted at number eight on the New York Times bestseller list in May 2011, going on to then become an Amazon Best Book and a Publisher’s Weekly Best Book of 2011. It was the first book to win the Andre Norton Award before it was actually traditionally published. Extremely well received by readers and critics alike, it even won high praise from Neil Gaiman, who said it was a “glorious balancing act between modernism and the Victorian fairy tale, done with heart and wisdom”.

This year, Valente has continued the tale of September, the girl who had been to Fairyland, “fought a wicked queen and saved a whole country from her cruelty. She had made friends who, in addition to being funny and brave and

clever, were a Wyvern, a Marid and a talking lamp” in The Girl Who Fell Below Fairyland and Led the Revels There. But it has been a year that September has been back home,

living with her mother who works in an airplane factory, missing her father who is away fighting in the war. September thinks Fairyland must have quite forgotten about her, until her thirteenth birthday, when she follows a strange little black boat back into Fairyland, only to find that nothing is as she had left it.

Everything in Fairyland is missing its shadow — something that occurred after September gave up her’s a year ago to save a child. Her shadow “had stood up just like a girl and whirled around in a very disconcerting way”, becoming Queen Halloween of Fairyland Below, where she reigns over all the shadows whom she has “freed” from Fairyland Above, where they just “seep into the ground and disappear”. Things are strange and powerful in Fairyland Below with shadows coming “in waves... just cracking with magic and savagely hungry for everything”. September knows that she must go there to fix what she had broken — though not everyone below would agree with her that there was anything to fix at all, especially not impulsive, selfish Halloween.

The Girl Who Fell is strong mythic fiction — or mythpunk, to use a term Valente has coined to describe her’s and similar writing. In a guest post on fellow writer John Scalzi’s website, Valente points out how every mythic/epic hero must go to the Underworld at some point in his or her journey. She writes “the very axiomaticness of the Underworld interests me and excites me as a writer. I like to wander around with a big stick, poking at the basic building blocks of myth, tipping them over to see what’s underneath, how strong they are, how they got there to begin with”. Using a classic trope from children’s literature (and even, perhaps, in portal fantasies), Valente gives her protagonist a reality that is difficult to face — September is caught in war-time depression with very little comfort or luxury in life; her desires for a better, more carefree parallel world need no explanation beyond the sheer existence of her actual reality. Her journey to Fairyland Below is the journey of a mythic hero: like Orpheus, who travels to the Underworld to bring back his wife, September must also bring back what she is missing. Like any good hero should do before starting her quest, she first sees an oracle: the Sybil who is “a door shaped like a girl” and who combs the sunshine out of September’s hair, prepping her for her journey by making her look like a “mad and savage thing” so she’d “fit right in” Fairyland Below. And what a world awaits her.

No one who has ever read any of Valente’s work (and many stories are freely available online), would expect any less whimsy from her than is present in The Girl Who Fell, both in the narrative and the characters. September meets an astounding number of people, each more imaginatively created than the next: whether it be the Vicereine of Coffee and the Duke of Teatime whose children are called Darjeeling, Matcha, Peaberry and The Littlest Earl, or it be a turquoise kangaroo searching in a mine for memories. Valente’s world-building is also ripe with lush images and gorgeous scenes set in a land as fanciful as any Carroll’s Alice ever visited. There’s a charming Victoriana feel to the narrative, with lengthy chapter titles that prepare for what’s to come, and the quaint, serious dialogue between September and all sorts of impossible creatures, be they dodos, goblins or little deer-like creatures called Hreinn.

Eventually, September must face her own shadow aspect — and in the form of Halloween, everything that lies outside her own conscious — to achieve any sense of individuation or complete self-actualisation. As much as The Girl Who Fell is being pitched as YA fare for middle grade (seven to 12 years), it is rich and strong enough to withstand even the most discerning of adult readers. It is a story for everyone who has ever been a child and remembers what it was like to feel out of control of your own life, to wonder who you were, who you could be and who you should. And ultimately, it is a book that is very much a portal itself, a “door into another place and another heart and another world”.  n

The Girl Who Fell Below Fairyland and Led the Revels There (Novel)

By Catherynne Valente

Illustrated by Ana Juan

Feiwel & Friends

ISBN 0312649622

272pp.  $16.99