There are a lot of fantasy fiction books being published these days, it seems. Harry Potter and the Twilight insanity has opened the floodgates and there is genre fiction out there for all tastes and all ages - vampires, werecreatures, zombies, witches and wizards and faeries for children, YA and grownup sensibilities. A lot of it is rubbish, of course, but now and then a good one pops up. Catherynne M. Valente's The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making is one of the good ones.
September is the titular girl, twelve years old and living in Nebraska around the time of WWII. Her dad has gone off to fight in the war and her mom works in the factories, so September is left home alone a lot, reading fairy tales, washing teacups and generally not caring for her life very much. When the Green Wind arrives on the Leopard of Little Breezes and offers to whisk her away to Fairyland, she jumps at the chance at chance for adventure - so much so that she leaves one shoe behind.
The Green Wind instructs September in the current rules of Fairyland, put into place by its present ruler, the Marquess, a strict and scary young girl with a very fine hat: (1) no iron allowed at all (except that which binds the fairies' wings, per order of the Marquess); no alchemy except for girls born on Tuesday; (3) transportation by air only by Leopard or licensed Ragwort Stalk; (4) all travel occurs widdershins (counterclockwise); (5) rubbish takeaway every second Friday; (6) all changelings are required to wear identifying footwear; (7) no crossing the borders of the Worsted Wood except for visiting dignitaries and spriggans. Plus, the eating or drinking of Fairy food means you are bound to Fairyland for ever and ever. September, being a capable and slightly stubborn girl, thinks she can handle all that and gladly charges onward.
The first folk she meets are a couple of witch sisters and their husband, a Wairwulf, and she accepts a quest from them. As September continues on, she befriends A-through-L, a Wyvern (dragon with only two legs), and the adventures escalate from there, as they come into contact with a Golem, the Marquess, various fairies, shapeshifters, spriggans, pookas, wild bicycles, Marids (a water-based genie), talking furniture and Death, to name just a few.
TGWCFiaSiHOM is very much in the vein of Baum's Oz and Carroll's Wonderland books. The heroine is a resourceful young girl but her adventures are not easy for her and her new friends: things are scary and painful and freezing cold and near-death and very often unpleasant. Baum's and Carroll's books were much darker than the universally loved movies but even the Judy Garland version of The Wizard of Oz was frightening in spots - those horrible flying monkeys! the scary floating Wizard head! - and I remember being quite afraid when Alice fell down the well in the Disney cartoon. Valente's book skirts the line between a children's book and a YA book: there are no coming-of-age themes in TGWCFiaSiHOM that might attract a YA audience, but there is definitely enough scary stuff that the youngest readers might not be ready for.
I really enjoyed The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making. It has an old-fashioned feel without being stodgy, clings closely to traditional fairytales and yet adds its own embellishments. September is a great heroine: clever, stubborn, brave, only Somewhat Heartless and sometimes foolish. She loves Fairyland and through her, even we adults can remember how to love it too.
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