The Fairyland Series by Catherynne Valente (thoughts so far)
A quick blog search revealed that I haven’t talked about another of my favourite new author discoveries from last year: Cathrynne Valente (it was a banner year for speculative fiction). As I treated myself to The Girl Who Soared Over Fairyland and Cut the Moon in Two to start the new year off right (the third in a series), this seems like a good time to mention her. I prefer discussing series as unit, so this post will generally address the first three in the Fairyland series, as the final two haven’t been published yet, and I haven’t yet read the prequel. I doubt I’ll include any plot spoilers, but if I do they’ll be clearly marked, so you can read on safely.
The first in this series is The Girl Who Cirvcumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making. I remember hearing about it when it was first published, but the title made me think it would be too twee for me. So I waited for ages; I can’t remember what made me decide to pick it up last year, but I almost immediately realised my mistake. While nominally children’s books (I think they’re marketed as ‘middle grade’), these function perfectly well for the adult reader too; they reminded me of a lot of Neil Gaiman’s work this way. Only instead of veering towards the creepy/horror side of the genre (a la Coraline or The Ocean at the End of the Lane), these are firmly in the fantasy/adventure in fairyland mold. I don’t read many children’s/young adult books, so I don’t make concessions to the ones that I do read; from that perspective, I think any adult reader will be fully engaged with these novels. In other words, imagine the best possible novel to come under that title, and you’ve got a good idea of the series.
I absolutely adore stylised writing and Valente has that Victorian omniscient, slightly paternalistic narrative voice down. I’m going to quote the first paragraph of the first book, as it gives you an excellent idea of the feel of the entire series.
Once upon a time, a girl named September grew very tired indeed of her parents’ house, where she washed the same pink-and-yellow teacups and matching gravy boats every day, slept on the same embroidered pillow, and played with the same small and amiable dog. Because she had been born in May, and because she had a mole on her left cheek, and because her feet were large and ungainly, the Green Wind took pity on her and flew to her window one evening just after her twelfth birthday. He was dressed in a green smoking jacket, and a green carriage-driver’s cloak, and green jodphurs, and green snowshoes. It is very cold above the clouds in the shantytowns where the Six Winds live.
Oh! Just writing that out made me want to run away with the Green Wind again on his flying leopard and follow September’s adventures. Anyway, this style could easily tip over into smarminess or mockery or purple prose in the hands of a lesser author. Luckily for all of us, Valente has her talent firmly in hand: the narrator maintains an even keel throughout the book, bringing the story to life with a tender love for all of the little details.
On a minor note, I love that Valente pays attention to dress; I happen to love textiles and clothing and dressing, but it’s a rare novelist who shares that passion. Valente does: in each book September has at least one piece of magical, comforting clothing. And who can resist the preciseness of the Green Wind’s outfits?
Each book of the series so far has a slightly different setting, although all are ‘in Faerie,’ as one might say. That means there are always new places to stumble across, and different types of challenges for September to meet, which is nice. The first two books also stand alone, with self-contained stories. The third, The Girl Who Soared Over Fairyland and Cut the Moon in Two, which I just read, has a self-contained story but then a cliffhanger ending that put me in a bit of a snit since the fourth one isn’t available yet. Luckily I only have to wait a few months!
While the settings are lush, and the writing delightful, the novels’ hearts are in the characters: September herself will easily win a reader over, precisely because she doesn’t fit into the ‘Mary Sue’ mode. She’s not the strongest or the cleverest or the bravest or the best behaved; instead she finds those qualities within her (except for the last one) as she needs to. She is stout and loyal and equipped with a strong moral compass, which makes her eminently suited for fairyland adventuring. And she has such a wonderful name; it’s probably a good thing I don’t plan to have children, because otherwise I’d be tempted to name them all for months or days of the week, a la Valente. Along the way, she picks up some wonderfully loveable friends (including one who believes his father was a library), and her relationships with them morph over the series. I love that Valente doesn’t present friendship and love as all smooth sailing; instead she captures the confusion and ambiguities that can appear in any relationship, but particularly when you’re undergoing a change as dramatic as growing up (by the third one, September is fourteen). Even though I’m in my late twenties, I easily identified with September. I think this is because she’s always presented as a subject in her own right, rather than objectified as can sometimes happen in children’s lit. Despite the pseudo-victorian narrative voice, nothing is dumbed down for either September or her friends or the reader. They must make heart-wrenching decisions and live with the consequences, and while they experience the joy and magic of adventuring, they also feel terror and loneliness as well. In other words, they teem with life.
I’m rambling again, aren’t I? This is the problem with talking about books I truly love; I have far too much to say to fit in one blog post, so I tend to just gush incoherently instead. The themes in these books are rich and reflective of human problems at all stages of life. Each of the books has made me laugh and cry, as scenes shift, and throughout I’ve been entranced. I know I’m speaking in generalities, but I want each of you to discover these for yourself, like I did. I can’t recommend the series highly enough: each book is the whole package (plot, characters, writing style) and gleams like a precious jewel. Reading these books will be especially satisfying, I suspect, for those of us who have always been bookish; they felt like a homecoming, for me at least. I cannot wait to discover what the next book brings for September and her friends.