The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There by Catherynne M. Valente

The Girl Who Fell Beneath FairylandTitle: The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There
Author: 
Catherynne M. Valente
Series: 
Fairyland #2
Published:
 
2012
Publisher: Much in Little
Genre:
 
fantasy, fairytale, children’s fiction
Source: 
review copy from the publisher
Rating: 
6/10

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.

The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherynne M. Valente

Fairyland 1Title: The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making
Author: 
Catherynne M. Valente
Series: 
Fairyland #1
Published:
 
10 May 2011
Publisher: 
Corsair
Genre:
fantasy, fairytale, children’s fiction
Source: purchased new
Rating: 7/10

Twelve-year-old September is tired of her life in her parents’ house, so when the Green Wind alights at her window and offers to take her to Fairyland on the back of the Leopard of Little Breezes, she accepts immediately.

From the start, September finds that Fairyland is nothing like what she could even have begun to expect. She nearly drowns when she arrives, and then has to choose between one of four unappealing paths – to lose her way, her life, her mind or her heart. Losing her way means going back the way she came. She doesn’t want to lose her life or her mind, so she choose to lose her heart, since “[a]ll children are heartless” (5) anyway, as hearts are heavy and it takes a long time to grow one.

On her journey, September agrees to retrieve a witch’s spoon from the evil Marquess who rules the land. The Marquess has introduced all sorts of rules and bureaucracy in an attempt to tame the world and make it more hospitable to children. She has even forbidden the fairy folk from flying, and had their wings strapped down with chains. She insists that fairy folk are too mischievous and dangerous by nature so

I fixed all that, September. Do you have any idea how difficult it was to invent bureaucracy in a world that didn’t even know what a ledger was? To earn their submission, even to the point of having their wings locked down? But I did it. I fixed it for children like you, so that you could be safe here and have lovely adventures with no one troubling you and trying to steal your soul away. I do you didn’t think you had charmed them all with you sparkling personality, child. (126)

The Marquess blackmails September into retrieving a magical sword in the midst of a periods forest. Luckily, September has friends to accompany her. She met a dragon-like creature called a Wyvern, who believes his father was a library.  His name is A-through-L, and he has an encyclopaedic knowledge of any subject beginning with the letters A through L. September also earns the devotion of a tattooed, blue-skinned boy named Saturday who will grant you a wish if you wrestle him nearly to death.

Obviously, this is not your usual fairytale or a typical children’s fantasy, even though it has all the magic and wonder of one. But it’s the exactly the kind of thing I love and look for in a Valente novel. Nevertheless, I got off to a bad start. While I fell in love with Valente’s writing in works like The Habitation of the Blessed (2010) and Silently and Very Fast (2011) it has a very childish quality here that I immediately disliked. The abundance of detail that I normally find so enchanting about her style, here seemed excessive and irritating.

I’m not so easily dissuaded though, and I kept reading hoping I’d just get used the style, or that the book would hook me once the plot was in full swing. And, happily, the book kept growing on me until, by the end, I was completely and utterly enchanted by it.

Valente has written a lush fairytale full of strange creatures and places. It’s strongly reminiscent of Alice in Wonderland with a nod to Narnia, particularly The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. Valente’s stories often have a metafictional aspect to them, and there are quite a few comments about stories in general and this one in particular. September embarks on her adventure having read stories where girls are whisked away to other worlds, and she worries that she’s not ill-tempered, smart, brave or talented enough for this journey. She understands what’s expected of her too, because “What is a child brought to Fairyland for if not to thwart wicked rulers?” (139).

This is so much more than an echo of the works that inspired Valente though. Like the best rewritten fairytales, she builds on them in interesting ways. Unlike Alice in Wonderland for example, the novel considers why September – and other children – might want to escape to Fairyland for reasons other than simple curiosity, and despite the many dangers. At first it seems like September is just bored and irritable, looking to do something other than wash teacups. But she’s also unhappy at home – her “father ran away with the army” (19) and her mother is  always working, no doubt struggling to make ends meet.

By spending time away from her mother however, September is given the chance to appreciate the practical things her mother – an engine mechanic – has taught her.

she was her mother’s daughter, always and forever, and felt sure whatever she set her hands to would work. Once, they had spent a whole afternoon fixing Mr Albert’s broken-up Model A so that September would not have to walk every day to school, which was several miles away. September would have been happy to watch her mother shoulder-deep in engine grease, but her mother wasn’t like that. She made September learn very well how a clutch worked, what to tighten, what to bend, and in the end, September had been so tired, but the car hummed and coughed just like a car ought to. That was what September liked best, now that her mother was not about and she had the freedom to think about her from time to time – to learn things, and her mother knew a great number of them. She never said anything was too hard or too dirty and had never once told September that she would understand when she was older. (158)

September’s skills, ingenuity and acquaintance with hard work are essential as she frequently encounters demanding obstacles and great danger. She understands that this is necessary:

There must be blood, the girl thought. There must always be blood. The Green Wind said that, so it must be true. It will all be hard and bloody, but there will be wonders, too, or why else bring me here at all? And it’s the wonders I’m after, even if I have to bleed for them. (49)

And she does bleed, many times. Her body is changed in ways that are far more scary than simply shrinking or growing as Alice did. One of the creepiest but most memorable moments is when she encounters her own Death, who appears to her as a small creature. Rather than run away, September cradles her Death in her arms and sings it to sleep.

Another way in which September differs greatly from Alice is that her actions and adventures have real consequences for herself and others. It’s not just a dream, and after a while you sense the gravity of what’s going on. Even though September is like Alice in that she goes from one bizarre encounter to another she always plays an active role and what she says and does matters to other people and the plot. She can’t just leave one thing behind and completely forget about it as she moves on to the next.

It was the gravity of this story that ultimately won me over. I think it was about midway through the novel, when September has to deal with something particularly threatening and scary, that I really started to enjoy the story. It’s still a children’s tale, but not a patronising one. September might be in a fantasy world, it very real to her and her friends, as is the quest she embarks on. She has to make sacrifices, face up to uncomfortable realities, and make choices that I would never have to want to make myself. The were several occasions where this book had me on the verge of tears.

It’s not all dark and desperate though; the novel is full of the delights you’d expect in a fairy world and more – whimsical customs, magical baths, strange mouthwatering food, pookas, spriggans, live bicycles who run (or rather, cycle) in herds, and a key who races after September because it knows she will need it. It’s lovely read for people who love modern, elaborate fairytales and stories that can be both grave and delightful. I recommend it.

December Round-Up

Happy New Year everyone! I hope you’ve all had a great holiday season, and are continuing to enjoy it if you’re lucky 🙂

Without a festive season to enjoy (I really hope I’m not stuck in Addis for December again next year) I managed to get a fair bit of reading done.

December 1

Heart-Shaped Box by Joe Hill was a reading challenge book I read with a friend. It was recommended to us as a particularly scary horror novel. I didn’t find it all that scary, but Joe Hill has clearly inherited some storytelling genes from his father Stephen King and I thought it was a good read overall. 7/10.

Me and the Devil by Nick Tosches on the other hand, had very little in terms of story and rather a lot (often too much) of random meandering and weird sex. I think this is the kind of book you’re likely to enjoy only if you feel some kind of kinship with the narrator, a sixty-something bitter writer who drinks women’s blood and functions as a fictionalised (well, I assume) version of the author. While I admired a few things about this novel, it was mostly pretty boring.

Kraken by China Miéville was, to my unhappy surprise, a total disappointment. It is officially my least favourite of Miéville’s novels, and I’ve read all of them except Iron Council. I expected to finish it within a week, but I ended up taking more than two to slog through it. I was bored, easily distracted and, worst of all, I was at a loss to explain why I didn’t like it. It had all the kinds of things I usually love about Miéville’s novel, but this time it just didn’t work for me. Since I didn’t really have anything interesting to say, I decided not to review it for now. I’ll give it another chance some day, but for now it’s a 4/10.

December 2

The Constantine Affliction by T. Aaron Payton (Tim Pratt) was a much more enjoyable metafictional mash-up of all sorts of entertaining genres – crime and mystery, steampunk, sci fi, and horror. It’s set in Victorian London, where the titular Affliction causes victims to change sex – a catastrophe for such a prim and prudish society. With lots of gender play and outlandish plot, it’s a really fun read. Review to follow soon.

Earth Thirst by Mark Teppo is an upcoming publication from Night Shade Books. Vampires are re-imagined as eco-warriors (for example, they sleep in the ground because the Earth nourishes and heals their bodies). They lament the damage that humanity has done to the Earth, and although the blurb gives the impression that this is a post-apocalyptic novel, it’s set in the present day. Devious corporate plots that threaten the vampires make up the story, and it’s got loads of action, but I found it forgettably average.

The Uninvited by Liz Jensen was my last read for 2012, and it was a good book to end the year, despite being a rather tragic one. In a disturbing global phenomenon, young children start killing their parents. The narrator, Hesketh [?] is investigating a series of workers around the world who sabotaged the companies they loved. Hesketh is very good at his job, partly because he has Asperger’s Syndrome, gifting him with an incredible talent for spotting patterns. He sees the connection between the saboteurs and the child murderers, but although this makes for a good story in itself, it’s Hesketh himself who really made this a great book for me. Jensen goes into the details of Hesketh’s psychology and daily life as someone with Asperger’s, and for me he became one of the most likeable and memorable characters I’ve come across this year. I recommend the book for that alone, but I’ll tell you what else I liked about it in my review.

The Lion, The Witch and the WardrobeBefore The Uninvited I re-read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis for a reading challenge. I don’t think I’ve read this since childhood, when I fell in love with it and wished very hard that my cupboard could also be a portal to another world. In my childish innocence I didn’t even notice the Christian allegory, which was so grotesquely obvious this time around. But although I dropped my rating from four stars to three, I still like this, and it still made me long for Turkish Delight. It might just be nostalgia working its magic, because I don’t really like such childish books anymore. 

January has gotten off to a slow start. I’m trying to catch up with my reviews of The Constantine Affliction, Earth Thirst and The Uninvited, so I haven’t finished any books yet. But I will have to get cracking – I’ve set myself a reading goal of 85 books for the year, and I’m planning to read Neal Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle and Cryptonomicon, which means I’ve got some dauntingly long books ahead of me.

Review of Cape of Slaves by Sam Roth

Title: Cape of Slaves
Series: Time Twisters #1
Author: Sam Roth (pseudonym of Dorothy Dyer and Rosamund Haden)
Published: March 2012
Publisher: Puffin South Africa
Genre: science fantasy, historical children’s fiction, YA
Source: review copy from Penguin South Africa
Rating: 5/10

In the year 2099, a glowing, green, time-travelling dust escapes into an air vent and travels “through time and space, searching for human skin with which it could connect”.

In present day Johannesburg, the glowing dust finds 12-year-old Sarah, and some of it seeps into her skin. At school the next day, Sarah is inexplicably drawn towards a book entitled Europe in the Middle Ages. When she examines one of the pictures she is pulled into the scene, travelling to the time in which it occurred. Sarah returns moments later, and decides that she needs to find others who have been touched by the dust.

She places a cryptic ad in the personal columns of a local teen newspaper, and that’s how she meets Toby, a street-smart boy from a dodgy neighbourhood, and Bonisile ‘Bones’ Tau (rhymes with ‘cow’), a super-nerdy genius. Toby shows them a newspaper clipping about a girl named Miriam who disappeared from the Cape of Slaves exhibition at a local art gallery. Toby is convinced that Miriam travelled through a portal in one of the paintings and could not get back. Bones and Sarah agree to join Toby on a rescue mission to save Miriam, but when they go through the painting to land in Cape Town, 1825, they do so without an inkling of what kind of society awaits them.

 

Before I go any further, I should put in a disclaimer. The protagonists are 12 and 13 years old, and according to Puffin’s press release for this Cape of Slaves, the target audience is 8-years old and up. I know nothing about the intellectual capabilities or reading preferences of this age group, so I’m reviewing this primarily for older teenagers and adults who read YA. Younger readers are no doubt less demanding and wouldn’t be bothered by the many shortcomings in this novel, but I thought the authors could have been more rigorous, regardless of the fact that they were writing for children. YA and children’s fiction shouldn’t be sub-standard fiction.

The bit of plot I described above already raises a lot of questions and issues for me. I think it’s unlikely that a personal ad in a local youth newspaper would catch the attention of the very few people who were touched by the dust. Who reads those newspapers anyway? Then Toby assumes that Miriam has time-travelled, based on nothing but a newspaper article claiming she “disappeared without a trace” (24). Sarah and Bones accept his assumption without question and agree to join him on a rescue mission, even though these three met each other less than an hour before. They all act as if time travelling is old hat for them, even though they’ve only had one experience with it so far and don’t really know how it works.

When they go to the museum to find the right painting and travel through it, none of them thinks to dress the part, so they all travel 187 years into the past looking like modern kids. What’s worse is that none of them give a single thought to the fact that they’re going to a time of slavery, and the issue of skin colour only comes up once they’ve gone through.

I could, reluctantly, suspend my disbelief to accept that Sarah is capable of this. She lives a life of privilege, where her daily problems involve her stepdad driving her to school in a huge, embarrassing Hummer, walking her to class, and searching her room for sweets and chocolates because he’s a health freak. Because she’s white, discrimination has probably never been an issue for her and 1825 will be far less dangerous for her than for Toby or Bones, so maybe – just maybe – she hasn’t considered the slavery issue.

Toby on the other hand, is coloured and comes from an impoverished background that has made him acutely aware of the racism and discrimination in present-day South Africa. In 1825, he knows full well that his skin colour puts him in danger, so why didn’t he mention it before? Bones, being a genius who attends one of the poshest schools in the country, has actually memorised a historical timeline from 1652 to 1902, so he definitely knows all about slavery. Nevertheless, he arrives at the gallery an hour early and goes through alone, all because he wants “to be the boy who came back from the past, told the world, and won prizes for it”. Of course, he ends up being the boy who is assumed to be a slave because of his skin colour.

Childish optimism aside, are 12-year olds really this dof? Or so ignorant of their history? Did schools stop teaching kids about slavery? Even if that’s the case, or if these three haven’t had those classes yet, then an art exhibition named “Cape of Slaves” and a room full of pictures depicting slavery should have been a giant, screaming clue. Certainly more noticeable than a cryptic ad in the personals column of a youth newspaper.

Perhaps the protagonists’ ignorance is meant to set the stage for an educational experience, since education is presumably one of the purposes of this novel, at least for those who don’t know about slavery or the fact that it was practised in South Africa. Since I already knew the basics, Cape of Slaves wasn’t informative or immersive. The depiction of slavery felt thin, like an impression gleaned from novels and movies on the subject. The authors (or publishers/editors) appear to have favoured ease of reading over historical accuracy in many instances. Sometimes this is understandable. For example, the violence in the novel is mild, to better suit the young audience, and we mostly see the cruelty of slavery in the way black people are treated like domestic animals.  But too often it felt like the novel just glossed over difficulties in a way that felt unnecessarily childish and unrealistic.

Almost all the characters speak perfect English, so the protagonists have no difficulty communicating. There’s only a smattering of Dutch or Afrikaans, and I don’t recall any African languages being used. No one makes a big deal about the kids’ modern clothing, speech or mannerisms. Many people marvel at how well educated Bones is, as if he were a monkey who’d learned to speak, but none of the slave owners find this threatening or even suspicious, and no one asks how or why he was educated. At one point, a slave boy named Elijah runs away from his farm in an attempt to help Bones, and they both end up getting sold at a slave market in the nearby town. Surprisingly, Elijah’s owners don’t ever come looking for him – quite convenient in terms of plot, but I can’t imagine that runaway slaves were treated so casually.

The characters are just as thin and uninteresting as the historical setting. Sarah is a garden variety shy, insecure girl, who gets jealous easily and finds it difficult to think of Toby without some kind of romantic overtone. Bones is a hollow nerd cliché – he’s physically weak, troubled by allergies, dresses like Steve Urkel, and likes to read about “rocket science and global warming” (46). What vague tastes. Poor Elijah, the only slave with a major role, is little more than a plot device put in place to help the readers and characters find their way. Toby, at least, is a little more appealing, probably because he’s the boldest, most socially conscious, and most adaptable of the three time travellers. He’s the streetwise “cool dude” with a sensitive side, but sadly this comes off as a bit of a cliché too. There’s an odd lack of slang in the characters’ speech, and they don’t really sound like kids most of the time, even if they act as such. There’s no real variation in the way they speak either, and this can be confusing, because the narrative switches between first-person narrators every two or three chapters, and it’s only the context that enables you to identify who is speaking.

On the whole, Cape of Slaves has the quality of a made-for-TV kids’ movie, like the ones that M-Net used to play for the two-hour Disney family time on Sunday afternoons. I remember liking those movies, but even then I knew that their stories were kept smooth and simple – sometimes ridiculously so – in order to keep kids happy. Similarly, this could be a good read for pre-teens and younger teens – it’s short and fairly easy to read, has a bit of adventure, and some educational value. For the many adults who read YA though, I would not recommend this.

Buy a copy of Cape of Slaves