Though Catherynne M. Valente's novels have been on my radar for a while now, I've honestly been a bit terrified to read them. They're so lauded by readers I respect highly and I really feared that I would be the black sheep of dissidence. I'd heard they were strange and that doesn't always jive so well with my tastes, but, oh, The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland is just the right kind of strange.
The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland recalls many classic tales: Alice in Wonderland, the myth of Persephone, The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe to name a few. I make these comparisons not to suggest that Valente's tale lacks in originality in any way, but that she cleverly weaves a story full of allusions to those classic tales. Though I don't usually do this, I'm going to structure much of my review around these comparisons, since The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland has been reviewed by many people already, and I feel free to do my own weird thing with it.
The tone and the sheer madcap adventure-filled feel of The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland is one hundred percent Alice in Wonderland. Though there was little that specifically seemed directly out of Carroll's classic absurdist tale, his influence is visible on every page. The girl stumbles into a magical land and bounces from quest to quest, with the ultimate goal of unseating an evil female ruler, who destroyed the benevolent queen. Valente fully embraces the absurd, but, where Carroll's story lacks for me—characterization, Valente shines, but I'll talk about that more later.
The Persephone myth works as a frame story to September's adventures. There are clever references throughout, but the main purpose is to explain why September will eventually return. I love the way that Valente set up the very end. It's simply perfection, bringing the rest of the plotting full circle. Sometimes it feels like the weird novels are so spontaneous and surprising because the author didn't know what was going on either, but it's very apparent that Valente knew exactly what she was doing.
I have two points to make with reference to the The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. The most overt similarity is that one of the characters traveled to Fairyland by means of wardrobe, an obvious omage to Lewis' tale. However, there's another comparison to be made, a bit subtler. Like Lewis' classic, September travels to a magical world during wartime. Her father is off fighting in WWII and her mother works as an engineer. She feels lonely and doesn't understand what's going on very well. Valente turns September's adventures in Fairyland into a neat platform by which to make observations on the nature of war.
As I said, there's so much more to Valente's tale than those structural similarities, all of which I love a lot. Her characters are a delight, though I must admit this is one of those times where the supporting cast is much more dear to me than the MC. September is a delightful girl, it's true. She has a lot more strength and graciousness than the average heroine, and is much more empowered in her story than any of the ones in the three classic tales I mentioned previously, which is utterly fantastic. She just can't compete with her sidekicks, though.
Those who know me well will probably not be surprised to learn that my favorite character is A-Through-L, affectionately known as Ell, the wyverary. He's a wyvern, sort of like a dragon, but also the son of a library. He knows absolutely everything about anything found between the letters A through L, which is immensely helpful on a journey, and he's the most delightful companion a girl could want through Fairyland. I also love Gleam, a lantern over a century old and desperate for adventure, and Saturday, a creature similar to a genie who I'm really looking forward to getting to know better in the next installment.
Even the evil Marquess is a marvelously well-drawn character. Often villains take a back seat to the good guys, lacking complexities in books with otherwise sophisticated characterization. Valente, however, made her villain one of the most complex characters in the piece. She gives the Marquess a reason for the way she is, and makes her at least a little bit sympathetic.
On top of all of that, The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland is one of the most beautifully written books I've ever read. Her writing is a veritable feast of deliciously underused words. Though I do think this might be a tough read for children, it would be a perfect choice for parents to read aloud to their kids, though they may end up explaining quite a few terms. This is a story that will delight children, I think, but adults even more so, in a rather different way perhaps.
The Final Verdict:
Valente's The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making is absolutely marvelous, and I can't recommend it highly enough to anyone who delights in verbiage, characterization, fairy tales, or any of those stories I mentioned above. With this one book, Valente goes on my auto-read list.