fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsThe Boy Who Lost Fairyland by Catherynne M. Valente fantasy book reviewsThe Boy Who Lost Fairyland by Catherynne M. Valente

The Boy Who Lost Fairyland is the fourth in the FAIRYLAND series by Catherynne M. Valente, the second in a row that has been somewhat of a disappointment to me, and the first whose strengths I thought were not enough to fully overcome its flaws.

Valente takes a bit of a risk here in book four, shifting focus from her primary protagonist, September and her friends, to a whole new cast of characters. The titular “boy” of the book is Hawthorn, a young troll scooped up by the Red Wind and dropped off in our world as a changeling, where he lives as a “Not Normal” boy for some years before encountering Tam, another changeling. Eventually, the two of them realize their true selves and make their way back to Fairyland, and it is there that their story will intersect with September’s, although not until the very end.

To begin with the positives, Valente’s trademark whimsy and linguistic/creative ingenuity are on their usual full display here, as we are treated to a host of wholly original creations:  a Sunday Dinner tree, a walking/talking gramophone, albino moose with barbed tails, “a cutlass named Hush, a ship made of jester’s caps, and … twenty levitating hyenas who couldn’t say the word yes as they’d been cursed by the Khan of Zebras.”

Even better, though, than her inventive descriptions of Fairyland is how Valente takes our mundane world and, by showing it through the eyes of the young Hawthorn (now named Tom in his human form), turns it into a fairyland filled with its own fantastical actions and objects, as when he thinks of his mother’s special brand of magic:

She could make music come out of a great brass thing in the parlor that looked like a horn of plenty but wasn’t one. She could make blue fire roar out of the stovetop anytime she pleased. She could make hot milk or cocoa or caramel or porridge appear inside a silver saucepan — he never knew which it would be … [she] would lay her finger alongside her nose, and then tap his, and say: “Magic!” … Gwendolyn said it when she produced a new toy that he hadn’t seen her making …when she made all the lights come on at once with one touch of her little finger to the wall or when his wooden train carriages went spinning around their wooden track with no one touching them.

Climbing into the head of this new-to-our-world outsider (aren’t all children this?), Valente makes us see the wonders of the world around us in a new, well, magical light.

Another plus is how despite the above magical description, she does not shy away at all from painting Tom’s experiences in this world in a darker, much more sad light. He does not, after all, fully belong here (don’t all children sometimes feel this?) and he unconsciously takes out this feeling on the things around him, and so “The childhood of Thomas Rood was full of broken things.”  He tears down curtains, takes a hammer to the flagstone path, tears apart stuffy animals, “weep[s] in fits of frustration.” All because “All his life he had known that something was wrong. It was only that he did not know what it was. He felt all the time as though there were another boy inside him, a bigger boy … a boy who knew impossible things … But whenever he tried to let that boy out, he was only Thomas, red-faced, sputtering, gangly, clench-fist Thomas.”

Valente has never been one to sugar coat her worlds, even (perhaps especially) in her books aimed as much at children as adults, and much of this is truly painful: his father’s disappointed acknowledgment that Thomas was “Not Normal,” his acting-out of his frustrations, his “Rules of the World,” a list of behaviors and knowledge he must write down and teach himself even though “Other children understood them easily. Normal Children.”

But despite the moving sections on Tom’s frustrations and the general fecundity of Valente’s imagination, as mentioned, the book was mostly a disappointment for me. One reason is that all those rich, fertile inventions of fairies and places and strange animals and pencil magic and trees and post offices and special shoes and and and felt early on to be more of a exhaustive catalog of “neat strange things” than part of the narrative. It was not far into the book before I was telling myself, “Not everything needs to be listed” — a list of metaphors, of images, of cool creatures, etc. It all felt overly manic. The nearest analogy I can come up with is how some sci-fi/fantasy movies will throw in a bunch of special effects because they can, but those effects do not serve plot or character or tone; they’re just neat effects.

Another issue I had was that save for the early section in Tom’s youth, I just didn’t find these characters particularly engaging or interesting. I had the same response to September in the earlier books, but those books’ strengths greatly outweighed that reaction. Here, there wasn’t enough to overcome the problem. One reason is that the plot as well was not all that compelling, feeling a bit scattered, episodic, and with the main characters sort of meandering around and reacting to encounters, some of which seemed to mostly become a reason for another catalog of neat ideas/names. Pacing was an issue, with the story slowing down in several places, and really for the first time in this series, I struggled with continuing on, putting the book down several times and picking it back up with little enthusiasm to finish, despite its relative brevity (just over 200 pages). Finally, while the other books have always been layered in terms of their audience, offering up rich opportunities for both adults and children, here that balance seemed slightly off.

The Boy Who Lost Fairyland has its moments, and one can’t help but marvel at Valente’s inventiveness. But problems that have always lain below the surface in earlier books here rise to a more noticeable level and have a more deleterious effect on the reading experience, leaving me to wonder if perhaps my time in Fairyland is coming to a close, whether the series does or not.


  • Bill Capossere

    BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is an English adjunct by day and a writer by night. His essays and stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals, along with a few anthologies, and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of Best American Essays. His children's work has appeared in several magazines, while his plays have been given stage readings at GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Playhouse. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, or teaching, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course or the ultimate frisbee field.

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