Feiwel & Friends , 2013, 248 pages
September misses Fairyland and her friends Ell, the Wyverary, and the boy Saturday. She longs to leave the routines of home and embark on a new adventure. Little does she know that this time, she will be spirited away to the moon, reunited with her friends, and find herself faced with saving Fairyland from a moon-Yeti with great and mysterious powers.
"Shall I tell her? Shall I be a kind and merciful narrator and take our girl aside? Shall I touch her new, red heart and make her understand that she is no longer one of the tribe of heartless children, nor even the owner of the wild and infant heart of thirteen-year-old girls and boys? Oh, September! Hearts, once you have them locked up in your chest, are a fantastic heap of tender and terrible wonders - but they must be trained. Beatrice could have told her all about it. A heart can learn ever so many tricks, and what sort of beast it becomes depends greatly upon whether it has been taught to sit up or to lie down, to speak or to beg, to roll over or to sound alarm, to guard or to attack, to find or to stay. But the trick most folk are so awfully fond of learning, the absolute second they've got hold of a heart, is to pretend they don't have one at all. It is the very first danger of the hearted. Shall I give fair warning, as neither you nor I was given?"
I love Catherynne Valente's Fairyland books to death. Even more than her adult novels, I love September and her trips to Fairyland.
They are full of heart and adventure and a daring, brave, sometimes foolish and selfish girl, tripping about a Fairyland that is one part Narnia, one part Wonderland, and increasingly, a little dark, as all true fairy tales are. Not grimdark or horrible, but while September may get a happy ending eventually, it probably won't be a train ride to paradise.
And of course, the prose. Catherynne Valente writes words you want to keep in a bottle. Half of what I loved about The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making was those wonderful paragraphs of wit and wisdom and wacky wordplay. She's repeated this feat in each of the next two books. Honestly, while Valente's prose is gorgeous in all of her books (it's her trademark), I have enjoyed it more in the Fairyland books than her adult novels.
This does cause me to wonder how accessible and captivating they really are to middle grade readers who are supposedly the target audience. I suspect only fairly advanced preteen and young teen readers will catch most of the wordplay, and that it takes an older reader to fully appreciate it. At times, Valente is almost too clever and the otherworldly imagery too dense and surreal. I love it, I do, but...
I did not quite love this third book, The Girl Who Soared Over Fairyland and Cut the Moon in Two, to the same adoring degree that I loved the first two.
It's still wonderful and beautiful and this is one of the few series for which I always pre-order the next book automatically. But, book three zigged and zagged more than usual before settling into something recognizably story-like, rather than just September having a series of encounters and interesting dialogs. And more than once, I had to actually slow down, wrinkle my brow, and reread. "Say what now? I'm sorry, Ms. Valente, but I am not sure what it is I'm supposed to be picturing here - can you describe that again with slightly less prettiful words?"
"Even if you hadn't entirely deposed (and possibly killed) not one but two governments and destabilized all sorts of political regions you couldn't even pronounce, let alone draft up constitutional monarchies for, even if you'd been far more careful about leaving your toys strewn about everywhere when you tire yourself out with anarchy and run on home, I'd say you really are the lowest sort."
Well, okay, September getting a verbal smackdown from the Blue Wind does make up for a lot.
September is fourteen now, and "Girl Who Soared" starts in Omaha, where she is learning to drive (she's a farm-girl and it's between the World Wars) and saving money for her next trip to Fairyland, because she's determined not to arrive penniless and dependent on whichever random Fairy she first encounters for help this time. Of course, one never arrives in Fairyland in a manner or condition that is convenient, so when she is swept off to Fairyland, it's by a harsh, chilly Wind who decides to take her to the Moon instead.
And here is where the book seemed to flail a bit in search of a plot. September spends a long time wishing to go to Fairyland, and then going to Fairyland, kind of, and then driving to the Moon (what? It's Fairyland!) and then stumbling across her pals A-Through-L the Wyverary and Saturday, the Marid. And they're wonderful, as always, and so are her encounters with various and sundry beings, but eventually we discover that a very angry Yeti is running around on the Moon smashing things, and for some reason it's September who winds up trying to stop him.
"Filler" by Catherynne Valente is worth more than a tightly-plotted thriller by most authors, so I was not disappointed by the Whelk of the Moon and Turing the Tyguerrotype. And Candlestick the Buraq is a character I hope we see again.
"They just could imagine the truth: I was happiest when I was arguing! When you argue with verve in your saddlebags, you are extremely alive. That is why you yell and holler and shake your fist — could there be anything sweeter than convincing someone to see the world your way? What else is talking for, or jokes, or stories, or battles? The Loudest Magic, and how I loved it. They saw a jennet red in the face — they could not see me red in the heart, so full of knowing that I had to make them know it, too."
Still — it did take a while to get to the meat of the story, in which we learn that even though September already kind of knew that Faeries are not always pleasant folk, they can be even less pleasant than that. The Yeti has a story of his own, and there is a metaphor-laden climax, and an ending which is quite unlike the endings of the previous two Fairyland books.
If the first Fairyland book was about obtaining a heart, and the second was about cleaning up after your messes, the third is about making choices, and sometimes being stuck with them, even the choices you haven't made yet. September is growing up, and one of the lessons of growing up is that when you're a child you have the whole wide world before you and everything is possible, but eventually the horizon narrows and all roads converge and you may wind up somewhere whether you meant to go there or not. And at fourteen, it's a lesson September can almost grasp but not yet accept. And we hope she will not, not yet.
"But the trouble is, I do want to be surprised. I want to choose. I broke the heart of my fate so that I could choose. I never chose; I only saw a little girl who looked like me standing on a gear at the end of the world and laughing, and that's not choosing, not really. Wouldn't you rather I chose you? Wouldn't you rather I picked our future out of all the others anyone could have?"
Ah, September, dear girl.
And Ms. Valente, please to be remembering plot next time. I know you're not a linear thinker, but novels do need a direction.
Have you read The Girl Who Soared Over Fairyland and Cut the Moon in Two?
Have you read any other books by Catherynne Valente?
Verdict: I don't want to say slump or slide or, Black Cosmic Dog-forbid, disappointment, but the very high bar set by the previous two Fairyland books was not quite cleared by this one. I loved The Girl Who Soared Over Fairyland and Cut the Moon in Two, but with a love that had already been stoked by expectations and a large amount of forgiveness. The wit and humor and tenderness is still there, and so is Catherynne Valente's incomparable imagination, and the life lessons for our girl September are getting harder and richer, but I hope that for the fourth Fairyland book, Ms. Valente's editor borrows September's Stern Mask.
Also by Catherynne Valente: My reviews of The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There, The Habitation of the Blessed, Silently and Very Fast and Deathless.
My complete list of book reviews.