Title: The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There
Author: Catherynne M. Valente
Series: Fairyland #2
Publisher: Much in Little
Genre: fantasy, fairytale, children’s fiction
Source: review copy from the publisher
Ever since returning to the normal world, September has longed to go back to Fairyland. Her world is even more boring now, and school has become harder. She was always odd and quiet, but her experiences in Fairyland have somehow changed her in ways that make the other children shun and hate her. Then, on the day she turns thirteen, she sees a boat rowing across a wheatfield and chases it into Fairyland.
Septembers assumes she can now have the happy adventure she might have had the first time if she hadn’t chosen to defeat the Marquess. But of course it’s not a simple matter of “a child is whisked away to a magical land and saves it, and all is well forever after” (55). Fairyland is in trouble – people’s shadows are falling away to live in the world of Fairyland-Below, ruled by Halloween, the Hollow Queen. And because magic comes from shadows, the underworld is rich with it. Halloween throws revels (parties) so everyone can have a wonderful time. The catch is Fairyland-Above is losing its magic with the shadows and will eventually just become part of the ordinary world.
September can’t bear to let her friends suffer, so she descends into the underworld, only to find that all this is happening because of her – Halloween the Hollow Queen is September’s own shadow.
Like book 1, book 2 is a fantastical children’s novel, but a serious one. September faces serious dangers and ethical dilemmas, and it’s seldom easy to separate good from evil. September has to make tough decisions, and face us to grim realities. It’s because of her actions that Fairyland is in trouble, because it’s her shadow that’s causing the trouble. However, she sacrificed her shadow in an act of kindness, and you can’t blame her for not predicting the consequences. Nevertheless, she feels culpable and takes on the responsibility of setting things right.
Nor is Fairyland-Below a bad place. The underworld isn’t evil, and the shadows aren’t the evil parts of the people they were once attached to. They’re just different, characterised by the attributes that their other selves kept hidden – the parts of themselves that were kept in the dark. She meets shadow-Ell the Wyverary to find that is a bit shy, while his counterpart was not. Shadow-Saturday is boisterous and brave, while the other Saturday was always very timid.
September doesn’t have the comfort, then, of knowing she’s fighting against bad people or a bad place. The shadow versions of Ell and Saturday consider themselves her friends as much as their counterparts did. To make matters worse, they’re happy in Fairyland-Below, happy to be free. They weren’t unhappy in the past, but now that they’re allowed to live their own lives, they don’t want that to change. To be reconnected to their original bodies would be like chaining them up. The shadows are their own Beasts, and deserve to be treated as such. Ell makes an excellent point when September says she can’t allow Halloween to keep taking shadows that don’t belong to her:
“Well, they aren’t yours, either [September]. And anyway, don’t you want to see Saturday and Gleam? I thought you loved them. Not a very good love, that only grows in sunshine. (74)
But September can’t just leave them to it, because they don’t care what effect they’re having on Fairyland-Above. Also, Halloween is a tyrant. She might be beloved by most of her subjects, but she’s a tyrant, who uses a mysterious creature known as the Alleyman to steal shadows from Fairyland-Above and keep any unruly subjects in line. She doesn’t care about the consequences of her actions like September does, doesn’t care what she’s doing to Fairyland as long as she’s happy. She’s turned Fairyland-Below into a kind of childish fantasy where everything is easy, everyone gets to do what they want and there are lavish parties every night. And as September knows, life can never be that simple.
In addition to all these ethical conundrums, September faces new personal challenges as a teenager. To begin with, she now has a heart
For though, as we have said, all children are heartless, this is not precisely true of teenagers. Teenage hearts are raw and new, fast and fierce, and they do not know their own strength. Neither do they know reason or restraint, and if you want to know the truth, a goodly number of grown-up hearts never learn it. And so we may say now, as we could not before, that September’s heart squeezed, for it had begun to grown in her like a flower in the dark. We may also take a moment to feel a little sorry for her, for having a heart leads to the peculiar griefs of the grown. (11)
While September was never uncaring, her cares weigh a little more heavily on her now. She thinks about her mother and father more than she did before. She’s worried about what she’s going to be when she grows up, particularly since everyone in Fairyland, including all her friends, seem to know what they want and have known it their whole lives. Halloween in particular is so much more sure of herself – she’s Queen, she knows what she wants and uses the magic of wanting to take it. She has a fantastic conversation with September when they finally meet, and taunts her uncertainty:
I am everything you aren’t brave enough to be. I am what you cannot even admit you want to be – Queen of Fairyland, which is how all the best heroines end up.
The thing with September though, is that she never has the easy path. She can’t just be; she has to live. She can’t just know what she wants in life; she has to figure it out. And already we see her struggling to define herself. She gets annoyed with the way people, even her friends, assume she can’t do things without help, or do things to her without her permission. She gets treated like a child, and is fighting to be treated more like an adult. While this goes on, she’s also trying to adapt to the way her friends have changed – they’re literally different people, and yet are still the friends she grew to love.
I love the way Valente weaves all these issues into a fairytale narrative, but I must admit that I didn’t enjoy this book as much as the first one. Both have a lot of encounters with bizarre creatures and places, and while September’s actions in these situations are important, the things themselves are just fantastical for their own sakes. Whether you like them is a matter of personal taste. There were some things I thought were cool and adorable, like September’s delightfully practical dress and the long wine-red coat that has a personality of its own. I was mostly indifferent to many other things. If you like them however, this book will be so much richer and more charming.
When reading first book, I immediately disliked it and then gradually started enjoying it more and more until the Marquess’s sad confession won me over completely. This time I got off to a better start, but . It was good, it was nice to read, and I think the challenges that September has to face make it an excellent children’s fairytale. I also like the way Valente plays around with fairytale tropes and mythical characters. But it just wasn’t as enchanting as I expected it to be. I’ll keep reading the series but I won’t dive into the third book as eagerly as I did this one.