Feiwel & Friends, 2015, 235 pages
When a young troll named Hawthorn is stolen from Fairyland by the Golden Wind, he becomes a changeling - a human boy - in the strange city of Chicago, a place no less bizarre and magical than Fairyland when seen through trollish eyes. Left with a human family, Hawthorn struggles with his troll nature and his changeling fate. But when he turns 12, he stumbles upon a way back home, to a Fairyland much changed from the one he remembers. Hawthorn finds himself at the center of a changeling revolution - until he comes face to face with a beautiful young Scientiste with a very big, very red assistant.
“A story is a map of the world. A gloriously colored and wonderful map, the sort one often sees framed and hanging on the wall in a study full of plush chairs and stained-glass lamps: painstakingly lettered, researched down to the last pebble and participle, drawn with dash and flair, with cloud-goddesses in the corners and giant squid squirming up out of the sea. There are more maps in the world than anyone can count. Every person draws a map that shows themselves at the center.”
Holy cow, as much as I was utterly, completely in love with the first Fairyland book, and marked this down as one of my very favorite series even though it's (supposedly) for middle-grade readers (yeah, right), somehow seven years has passed since I read book three, and here I am only now getting to book four! I cannot explain this except that I have been behind on a lot of my reading for quite a while.
So anyway, for our Dear Readers who are only now catching up, The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making was a delightful, charming, artfully word-crafted work pretending to be a children's book, about September, a farm girl from Omaha who is whisked away to Fairyland and has Adventures. Catherynne Valente took Oz, Wonderland, and Narnia and roughed them all up a bit before rolling them down a hill to spin a tale of Wyverarys, Dodos, Marids, Yetis, talking furniture, and fairies.
Now, the first two books were utterly delightful. The third book was also utterly delightful, but... maybe just a little bit less utterly so. I found the story more abstruse, with Valente's prosey prose running away from the plot.
In book four, September barely shows up until the end. Instead, we are introduced to a new main character: Hawthorn the troll. Who as a wee troll lad is whisked off to Chicago to become the changeling child of a pair of human parents who love him but find him completely, inexplicably Not Normal. Hawthorn spends the first twelve years of his life knowing only that his name is Thomas Rood and that something about him is Wrong, trying to figure out the strange rules of a world he wasn't meant for.
“All children are required to attend School, which is like a party to which everyone forgot to bring punch, or hats, or fiddles, and none of the games have good prizes.”
And then he discovers another changeling, a fetch named Tamburlaine. She helps him rediscover his magic. He animates a ball of yarn which becomes a fiercely loyal, biting wombat, and a baseball which becomes... something else.
“I'm not afraid of you!' The wombat yelled. 'I saw you get stuck in the washing machine once. Round and round you went! Who's afraid of something that can't defeat a rinse cycle?”
And they go off to Fairyland and have Adventures.
But this is a darker tale than the previous ones, and while each has been a bit of a metaphor in its own way, The Boy Who Lost Fairyland is, if not quite on the nose, a pretty solid whack in the proximity of a nose. When Hawthorn/Thomas and Tamburlaine and their companions go to Fairyland, they find out that, in true changeling fashion, the human boys and girls they replaced have been living there in their place. But after the revolutions instigated by a certain girl named September, things are not nice in Fairyland, and the fairies use and abuse the changeling human children in ways that related in Valente's cleverbright fanciful words but are truer to the older, darker fairy tales.
"The mass of Fairyland must remain the same. So when a human comes here, somebody from here must go there. Changelings keep Fairyland level. But they bring so much trouble. They bring stories. Fairies only like the stories they get to tell. So they... bleed all the Changing out of them. Make them turn into a thousand things until there's not much left in them to go changing Fairyland. It's dreadful. They love it."
Fairies are capitalists, or abusers, or representations of colonialism or cultural appropriation... however they are meant to be read, the parallels are stark and brutal. Fairies are cruel but so pretty and polite in their exploitation. This isn't a political book, except inasmuch as all books are political, but the metaphors are heavy. This book was as sobering as it was charming when we finally meet September, who since her last adventure is now fifteen and quite unwillingly near to grown up.
“Oh, September. My best girl. I shall tell you an awful, wonderful, unhappy, joyful secret: It is like that for everyone. One day you wake up and you are grown. And on the inside, you are no older than the last time you thought Wouldn't it be lovely to be all Grown-Up right this second?”
This is not to say there is no lightness or charm or wit in this volume. Catherynne Valente's writing is full of charm and wit. In addition to old friends, there are a number of new ones, including Blunderbuss, the Wombat Prince of Chicago, and Scratch, the living gramophone who dines on sheet music, and Bespoke Espadrille, a walrus shoemaker.
I do adore the Fairyland books, but like the third book, this one was a departure from the first two and not quite as adorable. But I will continue to praise this series and recommend it to all readers, old and young. And I must finish the fifth (and I believe, final) volume in less than seven years!
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 Girl Who Soared Over Fairyland and Cut the Moon in Two, The Habitation of the Blessed, Silently and Very Fast, Deathless, Six-Gun Snow White, and Space Opera.
My complete list of book reviews.