Because all of life is stories.
I read a lot of books, gentle readers. Usually more than one a week in fact. More than some, less than others. And most of them I enjoy to some degree. But every once in awhile, one of them comes along that I know is bound to be read and reread and cherished and pontificated about. Catherynne Valente’s The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making is one such book.
Like Patrick Rothfuss and Neil Gaiman, Valente has an understanding of language that borders on savant. She understands the inner turnings of stories and true things. She knows what it is about words that can break a person. Her story of a young girl named September who finds herself on an adventure in Fairyland encompasses all that is wonderful and whimsical of Grimm’s and Anderson’s fairytales, while completely lacking in the pretension that often accompanies them. It’s a book that, despite its relatively short length, I found myself reading slowly, carefully, only a chapter or so a night. It’s like finding a dessert that you love, but it is so rich that eating the whole thing in one go would not do it justice, so you savor it for a week.
September is a young girl from the Midwest, who one night finds herself whisked away by the Green Wind and sent into Fairyland to have adventures. Along her way she meets witches lacking in spoons, an evil Marquess, a golem made of soap, changeling sharks, sentient furniture, a pack of roaming wild bicycles, and myriad other wonders.
The Fairyland she had imagined though is so much different than the one that she finds herself in. Anything that flies (Other than carpets and cats naturally) has been bound in chains so that they may be forced to walk. Creatures that once lived for fancy and fun and tricks now work in shoe factories and discuss the wonders of taxable income. Something is very very wrong in Fairyland.
Let us not forget to mention two of the very best side characters I have ever encountered in a book. The first of which is a marid named Saturday, who will grant you a wish if only you can best him in a wrestling match. Saturday though is timid by nature, and does not wish to wrestle anyone. The second is a wyverary named A-Through-L. You might ask yourself just what is a wyverary? Well, a wyverary is the what happens when a wyvern and a library are very much in love and after having all the necessary discussions decide that now would be a good time to start a family. Ell is Septembers most stalwart and loyal companion, even though it cannot fly. It knows many things about the world and about Fairyland, but not if they start with any letters between M and Z.
These are just some of the things that September, our dear and precocious heroine, encounters on her trip to the Autumn Provinces to recover her mothers sword from a glass casket, to invade a lonely gaol, to recover a witches spoon, and to lose her heart. There are many adventures to be had in Fairyland. And only so much time in which to have them all.
My favorite character of all though wasn’t the wyverary or the spriggans or the adventurous paper lamp. It was the narrator. The narrator who takes time away from September’s adventures every so often to remind us that if there is another adventure to find then by all the gods she will plumb the depths of Fairyland to find it for us. And to apologize for not being able to tell September all that she can tell us. She hopes that you forgive her the pain and longing that September must go through, in order that we adventure. It is a price I would gladly pay again and again, though it made my heart ache for these dear characters.
I was getting close to the end of this book and beginning to worry that the ending would not live up to the promises the book had been making. I worried that it would end on a sour note and leave me feeling cheated out of a satisfying climix in which I bit my nails and my heart pounded in my chest. I tell you now, it does not. Valente delivers on an ending that is both surprising and inevitable, which is the best kind of all.
This book is all that is good about fairy tales. It has whimsy to spare and a confidence and wizardry of words that I seldom find despite all of my looking. As you have no doubt gathered, it is a book you should read. It is a book you should read twelve times. But beware this book, gentle readers. It will fill you full of stories and dreams and fairy food and delights. The better to break your heart into pieces and strings and chaff. It is not just September that loses her heart on the road through Fairyland. Though, as in most fairy stories, there is always a price to pay for an adventure well had.