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

Genre: Fantasy
Main characters: September Morning Bell, the Honorable Wyvern A-Through-L
Time and place: Fairyland, unspecified time (in terms of our world September is from Omaha, Nebraska, and runs from home sometime during WWII)
First sentence: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.
Verdict: Lovely :) (I gave up trying to quantify my impressions by stars)

Summary:
Readers will always insist on adventures, and though you can have grief without adventures, you cannot have adventures without grief.

When September is asked by The Green Wind whether or not she wants to take a trip to Fairyland with him, she jumps at the opportunity to leave her boring home and get to have adventures. She soon stumbles upon a quest, being asked by the witches Hello and Goodbye to bring them the spoon that the Marquess, the evil ruler of Fairyland, has stolen from them. She also makes some friends among the way, such as A-through-L, the self-proclaimed Wyverary (a cross between a Wyvern and a Library, that is), and Saturday, the blue skinned Merid child who can fulfill wishes if defeated in fight. She also meets her Death, almost gets turned into a tree, loses her shadow and, of course, circumnavigates Fairyland in a ship of her own making.

General impression
When I started this book it had a 4.11 rating on Goodreads, so one can say I had quite a few expectations from it.1
I opened it with a flutter of anticipation and a slight fear of disappointment. And then I read the very first words (a chapter title), and I just knew I was going to love it.2

And I was right. The writing style was lovely, with a beautiful prose and a beautiful turn of phrase. The events were just the right blend of fantastic and plausible, with just enough grief thrown in3 to make it more than an average children book. At times it reminded me of Lewis Carroll and Alice in Wonderland, while at others it had a touch of The Neverending Story mixed in :)

Setting
Ah, Fairyland. Prey to an evil ruler, who tries to impose bureaucracy and other nonsensical — for Fairyland — things. People still remember fondly the previous Queen, Mallow, who was nice, and gentle, and loved by all. The world building is one of the things that bring magic to the book, as Fairyland turns out to be a place full of whimsy and wonderful things. There is a house that takes anyone looking for the capital city by surprise, appearing suddenly in front of them. There are migrating herds(?) of bicycles. There are… ah, so many enchanting things. And everything is enveloped in a beautiful language that is a pleasure by itself.

Characters
September is twelve, and born in May. Her favorite color is orange, as “[o]range was bright and demanding. You couldn’t ignore orange things.“. She’s also described as being an “ill-tempered and irascible enough child“, right at the start. However, as time goes by and her adventures in Fairyland unfold, September, although she tries to take courage from the fact that someone once considered her ‘ill-tempered’ turns out to be nothing of the sort. She is smart, and kind, and brave, and loyal to her friends, and ready to make sacrifices in order to help others. She turns out to be quite my ideal character, and I couldn’t but love her as the pages rolled on.

My favorite ‘castmate’ was the Wyverary, A-through-L, who had a brother and a sister with names like M-through-S and T-through-Z. He was convinced that his father was a Library, and when he meets September he was just on the way through the capital, to find his grandfather, the Grand Library. He’s also quite an expert in all things with names starting with letters A through L :) Although a Wyvern, he looks just like a dragon, being big, red, winged and able to breathe fire; yet on the inside he is a very gentle creature, a bit shy even, and loyal to the core.

And then there are the (supposedly-but-not-so-much) inanimate objects, which are, in this world, infused with a personality of their own. Such as the green jacket, who tries her best to protect September from the weather, changing its shape and size when necessary to do so. Such as the little key brooch that followed September everywhere, just in case she (September) might find herself in need of a key :) Not to mention the Tsukumogamis, who, albeit not friendly, there were quite a nice touch:

But when a household object turns one hundred years old, it wakes up. It becomes alive. It gets a name and griefs and ambitions and unhappy love affairs. It is not always a good bargain. Sometimes we cannot forget the sorrows and joys of the house we lived in. Sometimes we cannot remember them. Tsukumogami are one hundred years old.

And let’s not forget Saturday, the Marid boy. We do not get to find out much about him, other than his being peaceful, and shy; however I was enchanted by the very concept of Marids and the way they relate to time:

Our lives are deep, like the sea. We flow in all directions. Everything happens at once, all on top of each other, from the seafloor to the surface. My mother knew it was time to marry because her children had begun to appear, wandering about, grinning at the moon. It’s complicated. A Marid might meet her son when she is only eleven and he is twenty-four, and spend years searching the deeps for the mate who looks like him, the right mate, the one who was always already her mate. My mother found Ghiyath because he had my eyes.

Just one last tiny quote and I will move along :) this one fascinated me because it managed to make me fond of the character it refers to, in just a handful of words:

Now, jackals are not the wicked creatures some irresponsible folklorists would have children believe. They are quite sweet and soft, and their ears are clever and enormous.

The last six words did the trick. I don’t remember ever being drawn to a new character after a mere six words, but this is precisely what happened here. Unfortunately for me this was a character that appears only briefly, but I am very hoping to see her (it was a girl) again in a next book.

Relationships
At first, September is Heartless. All children are, explains the author, as they have not yet grown a heart. Faced with a choice later, at a crossroads, she chooses the path with ‘lose your heart’ as a consequence, without thinking too much about it.

And this is how we, the readers, see September grow throughout the book. Bit by bit, adventure by adventure, she transforms — from a child who did not much care about others, and who did not think twice before leaving home without saying goodbye to her mother, into someone aware of others’ plights, someone who cares and cannot remain indifferent. In short, she grows a heart. One of my favorite things in the book.

Plot
The plot is not that much taken by itself — a classical tale of a questing hero that faces the villain with the help of some friends. However, everything else in the book (the characters, the world itself) is so very fascinating that I don’t think anyone will be bothered by that. Alas, many things may be said of this book, but accusing it of lack of originality is absolutely and definitely not one of them.

What I liked
I liked that the author does not overly protect the main character, as September does have some difficult things happen to her. Sure, everything turns out all right in the end, but I think that this shade of grey sometimes cast upon September makes the book one that is addressed to adults too, rather than being oversimplified for children’s (sort of) sake alone.

Huge list of quotes to follow. Alas, this is one of those books where I have to restrain myself to keep from quoting half the book, if not more.
Starting with some small ones:

It is well known that reading quickens the growth of a heart like nothing else.

Short yet irresistible :) (I share the same opinion but I could never have put it so beautifully)
About the earth:

The earth, my dear, is roughly trapezoidal, vaguely rhomboid, a bit of a tesseract, and altogether grumpy when its fur is stroked the wrong way!

About the Marquess:

“You may be ticketed, or executed, depending on the mood of the Marquess.”
“Is she very terrible?”
The Green Wind frowned into his brambly beard.
“All little girls are terrible,” he admitted finally, “but the Marquess, at least, has a very fine hat.”

Next, the inspirational ones:
One about courage:

“When you are born,” the golem said softly, “your courage is new and clean. You are brave enough for anything: crawling off of staircases, saying your first words without fearing that someone will think you are foolish, putting strange things in your mouth. But as you get older, your courage attracts gunk, and crusty things, and dirt, and fear, and knowing how bad things can get and what pain feels like. By the time you’re half-grown, your courage barely moves at all, it’s so grunged up with living. So every once in awhile, you have to scrub it up and get the works going, or else you’ll never be brave again.

And one about dreams/wishes:

“For the wishes of one’s old life wither and shrivel like old leaves if they are not replaced with new wishes when the world changes. And the world always changes. Wishes get slimy and their color fades, and soon they are just mud like all the rest of the mud, and not wishes at all, but regrets.”

One of my favorite things is the oblique reference to Schrodinger’s Cat and the observer effect:

The casket is really quite clever. I received first marks for it. How shall I explain? It is both empty and full, until one opens it. For when a box is shut, you cannot tell what it might contain, so you might as well say it contains everything, because, really, it could contain anything, see? But when you open it, you affect what is inside. Observing something changes it, that’s a law, nothing to be done.

And then there is something that makes one think of Plato’s theory on soulmates:

A lady stood uncertainly by, looking as if she might run at any moment–if indeed she could run, for the lady was truly only half a lady. She was cleanly cut in half lengthwise, having only one eye, one ear, half a mouth, half a nose. It did not seem to trouble her any. Her clothes had been made to fit her shape, lavender silk trousers with only one leg, a pale blue doublet–or singlet–with only one padded sleeve. Half a head of hair tumbled down her side, colored like night.
[...]
The lady ran full tilt towards a young man, tall and half-formed just as she was. His trousers, too, were silk and purple, his collar yellow and high. The two joined–smack!–at the seam, and she turned to face September. A glowing line ran down their bodies where the join had been made.

This particular idea will develop into something else than I initially thought, but I still find it brilliant :)
One last concept I found too interesting not to mention here, this time in a spoiler box, just to be on the safe side:
show spoiler


And to think that all these are but a few of the interesting things in the book :)

Thoughts on the title
While this has to be one of the longest titles I have encountered, if not the longest, it is nonetheless a very intriguing and also descriptive one. I love it, although September gets to experience a lot more than simply travelling around Fairyland on a ship4 :)

Thoughts on the ending
The book ends hinting to a sequel, and it does so in a beautiful language:

“All stories must end so, with the next tale winking out of the corners of the last pages, promising more, promising moonlight and dancing and revels, if only you will come back when spring comes again.”

While I already knew a sequel is in the making, and am very looking forward to it, I am somewhat against this ‘buy my next book’ practice some authors engage in. I do admit that as far as these things go this is a very tame attempt, but I was a bit sad to see it nonetheless, on principle.

As for the rest of the ending, long spoiler to follow:
show spoiler

Recommend it to?
Everyone. It is so nicely written and has such imaginative elements that I think everyone will find at least something in it to enjoy.

Buy this from amazon.com | Buy this from bookdepository.co.uk | Catherynne M. Valente’s website | Catherynne M. Valente on Twitter | A sort of a prequel to the book (the story of Queen Mallow) | how the book came to be (an inspirational moment in itself)

  1. I usually try to avoid looking at ratings ever since I discovered my tastes aren’t precisely similar to the general trend, seeing as I found some titles (Shiver, Graceling, The Iron King) not as enjoyable as their surrounding hype made me believe. And yet when I do see the ratings I cannot quite ignore the fact that the mixed opinion of almost 2000 people marks this as a way above average book. []
  2. “Exeunt, on a leopard”. Why, ‘exeunt’ is one of my favorite words. And a leopard is even better than a bear, is it not? :) []
  3. one cannot have adventures without grief, remember? []
  4. a ship she herself has fashioned out of fairy gold scepters tied together with her own hair, no less []
  5. this was one of the moments I was looking forward to the most, having Ell’s chains removed from his wings :) and when it happened it turned out to be even nicer than I imagined it, due to the involvement of the travelling Key []