Thursday, July 21, 2011

The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making

The Girl Who 
Circumnavigated Fairyland 
in a Ship of Her Own Making 

Written by Catherynne M. Valente
Illustrated by Anna Juan
Reading level: Young Adult
Hardcover: 256 pages
Publisher: Feiwel & Friends (2011)
ISBN-13: 978-0312649616
It's difficult to know quite where to begin with this review. I'm overwhelmed with the attempt to string enough well-constructed sentences together that will fully convey the excitement I feel for this book, while at the same time leaving as much to the imagination as possible. But here goes.

First, I'd like to say that I stumbled across this book in the small but glorious book section of a fantastic neighborhood comic shop. I picked it up, drawn to the look of the cover, glanced at the reviews, and then put it back down. I was certainly intrigued, but I already had a few other books in my hand. I walked around the store for a long while, but couldn't shake the praise I had just read out of my head. Neil Gaiman is quoted on the front cover:

“A glorious balancing act between modernism and the Victorian Fairy Tale, done with heart and wisdom."

Honestly, how could I pass that up? I thought better of my initial decision and held on tightly to the book and made my way to the register.

Later that night, I started reading, IMMEDIATELY sensing I had found something truly special.


A highly logical, good-natured, relatively naive but adventuress young girl named September (LOVE THE NAME!) finds herself willingly winged away from boring Nebraska to magical Fairyland on the back of a flying leopard accompanied by a man named The Green Wind. Still with me?

From there her adventures unfold in the tradition of classical fantasies that precede it; September is part Alice in Wonderland and part Dorothy in OZ but with a spunky, humble, lovable personality all her own. She befriends and encounters numerous Fairyland beings, creatures, and environments on her journey through the enchanting new world, discovering as much beauty and charm as she does the disturbing and unsettling. Among many wonderful characters, September meets A-Through-L, a kind-hearted, well-meaning wyvern who's wings are shackled so he can not fly, and Saturday, a gentle Marid boy kept as a slave. She quickly realizes all is not well or fair in this magical land.

At odds with September is the nefarious Marquess, supreme ruler responsible for the current state of servitude and repression throughout Fairyland. But the Marquess is no two-dimensional villain, and by the end September unravels the reasons behind her authoritarian regime. This story is both startlingly unique and comfortingly familiar. At its heart, it is about a child coming to know herself and understand her own strengths through courage, logic, and selflessness. September is a worthy heroine that represents the exciting and tragic inevitibility of growing up.


Inventive. Exceptional. Insightful. Amusing. Moving. Witty. Victorian. Timeless. Delightfully,  superfluously, wonderfully verbose. That is to say, I am one of the faction which is entirely enthralled with Ms. Valente's flair for the English language. Her plays on words are clever and sharp, and for as surreal and absurdest as the world she has created can be, it is executed with such strong internal logic that every nonsensical bit simultaneously rings with unexpected truth. I will admit that there will be those for whom the writing may border on tiresome. But to me, she is a wordsmith. A genius at turning a phrase and creating not only memorable characters, settings, and plot, but a unique voice with which to tell the tale.

Amazing still is how this expansive story remains nuanced, heartfelt and intimate in Valente's capable hands. For every earth-shatteringly big-picture insight, a small, beautifully humble observation is made. The perfect balance between the awe-inspiringly fantastical, and the truthfully tangible.

This is a book for word-lovers, sentence-cherishers, and paragraph-hoarders. Chock full of quotable passages, this book is a true delight to read alone or aloud.

I know I am supposed to say all the reasons why Ana Juan's black and white chapter headers are the perfect compliment to the whimsical yet dark world Valente has created. But I just did not care for them. Yes, they are bizarre enough to work with the story, but they fall flat in terms of enhancing my experience of the book.

They are fine, but they don't thrill me. I simply do not connect to them. There is a generic quality to the characters that lacks personal appeal. While I love the cover illustration (which is in color) the interiors are rather muted and even a bit ugly and crudely drawn. I am loathe to sound so harsh, but it just don't find them very memorable. 

I feel ignorant in my evaluation---as if looking at a work of  Picasso and asking, "What's the big deal?" I feel perhaps I am missing some key perspective or previous appreciation for Juan's work that will make me love them more than I do. But perhaps my criticism is less to due with her art and more to due with the fact that I adore the writing so much that I want to love the illustrations equally. Forgive me.

To the right audience, I believe this book has the potential to inspire a love not only for reading but for the power and vibrancy of language itself. By drawing from classically told Victorian tales, Valente's voice begins in established territory but soon moves into a world of words that is entirely her own. It's smart. It's meaningful. It's fun. It's timeless. And I want more.

I implore you to give it a try. What's to lose? Especially as you can read the majority of the book right on the author's website. And if you like it, support her genius and buy yourself a copy of the hardback. She deserves it and you won't regret it.


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