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

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsSeptember returns to Fairyland to find that her shadow, which she sacrificed to save a child in the previous book, has become the Queen of Fairyland-Below. Worse, the shadows in Fairyland are disappearing into Fairyland-Below, where they enjoy the freedom to be the masters of their own fate. But the shadows are the sources of magic in Fairyland, and as more of them leave for the underworld, magic is disappearing from Fairyland. September has to solve this problem before Fairyland disappears forever.

I was really tempted to just write a review that said, “This book is awesome and you should all go buy it now. Stop wasting time reading this review.” However, out of a sense of professional responsibility, let me explain why this book is so wonderful.

Catherynne M. Valente is the true heir to Lewis Carroll. Her imagination has created a world that is both strange and fearsome in its wonder. Every page reveals a new creation that is simultaneously new and as old as story. This is not a book that can be read quickly, for the wonderful language requires that you slow down and read it aloud in your head. (I can’t wait until my son is old enough for me to read this aloud to him.) This is a book not to just be enjoyed, but savored slowly. It is a fairy tale of the heart, of coming of age, of the cruel necessities and tender mercies of growing up. The fact that this is a book written for middle graders should not dissuade anyone from reading it. The story reads at multiple levels, and resonates with the mythic truths that underlie the best tales of things both impossible and true.

The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There is destined to be a classic. It is a sequel to The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, which I read earlier this year and thought was fantastic. I wasn’t sure if Valente would be able to keep that level of magic and wit in a second novel, but she did. With this installment in the FAIRYLAND books (there will be another to come), Valente has firmly planted herself on my “buy on sight” list, and this book is on my shortlist for best novel of the year. You can expect to see my reviews of her backlist popping up in the future as I read more of this tremendously talented author.

~Ruth Arnell

The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There by Catherynne M. Valente YA fantasy book reviewsThe Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There is the more-than-worthy follow-up to Catherynne Valente’s The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making. It continues the story of September, returning her to Fairyland, or more precisely, to underneath it, where she once again adventures amongst strange and wonderful people and places.

September’s story opens up back in Nebraska, but along with September, we’re quickly whisked out of our dull, mundane world of school and mean girls and back to the world of Fairyland. But Fairyland has changed since September was last there, and not for the better. Worse, the change seems to be due to something September herself did on her first visit there. And as September is “quite a practical child,” she knows that “You must always clean up your own messes.” And so it isn’t long — a quick little stop in a forest of glass and a trip to the Sybil — before she is climbing down the trapdoor into Fairyland-Below to set things right.

There, where the shadows live, she reunites, kind of, with a few of her prior journeying companions. Only “kind of,” though, because what she meets are their shadows rather than themselves, and shadows are not quite the same. One reason for the difference is explained by the narrator, who as in the first book comments freely throughout the novel, addressing the reader directly: 

[September] did not know yet how sometimes people keep parts of themselves hidden and secret, sometimes wicked and unkind parts, but often brave or wild or colorful parts, cunning or powerful or even marvelous, beautiful parts, just locked up away at the bottom of their hearts . . .  And all . . .  parts they hid away and left in the dark to grow strange mushrooms — and yes, sometimes those wicked and unkind parts too, — end up in their shadow. 

That she “did not know yet” informs us that part of this story will be a learning experience for September, making it somewhat of a coming-of-age tale. And the range of all those parts informs us that this will be a story that does not over-simplify that journey. It would have been all too easy (not to mention all too dull) to make shadows simply the darker, worse side of everyone. But not all we hide away is our worst self, and Valente is adult enough to know that, and honest enough to use that, despite this being a story “for children.” This refusal to condescend to younger readers was one of the strengths of The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland and it remains a strength here as well. That’s actually true of all the positive aspects of the first book, which reappear here equally enjoyably, if at times a bit slanted, a bit darker (September is, after all, thirteen now rather than twelve).

With a brand new setting to work with, Valente has a new canvas on which to let her fervent and fertile imagination fly and so along with the shadow-forms of familiar creatures, we get the pleasure of meeting a whole slew of other original creations. The narrator’s wry and at times sorrowfully resigned voice (“Oh September! It is so soon for you to lose your friends to good work and strange loves and high ambitions. The sadness of that is too grown-up for you.”) continues to be a lovely escort. The intertextual and metafictional aspects continue to add layers of playful, self-aware complexity, as when September meets a “Questing Physickist” who teaches her “The First Law of Heroics” and who hopes to “be the one to discover the GUT — the Grand Unified Tale, the one which will bind together all our [quest] Theorems and Laws, leaving out not one Orphan Girl or Youngest Son or Cup of Life and Death. Not one Descent or Ascent, not one Riddle or Puzzle or Trick.” And, as one has grown to expect from Valente’s work, whether it be for adults or children, the language is vivid, lyrical, and rich, an ocean of words to splash around in and float upon. Which means, just as with The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland, The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland almost requires you to read it aloud to your children.

As much as I enjoyed the first book in this set, I did feel, as I mentioned in that review, a little distanced from both story and main character. The form remains episodic in nature here, and while I loved the sheer volume of inventiveness in both novels, I sometimes wished Valente would save some of the great ideas for other times and let us enjoy fewer ones longer. That said, I enjoyed The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland a little better than The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland; it felt a bit tighter and I appreciated the dimmer, more slant-wise trip slightly more. But in any case, both books are highly recommended both for adults and younger readers. And I wouldn’t mind seeing more of Fairyland down the road.

~Bill Capossere

The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There by Catherynne M. ValenteReading a book by Catherynne Valente is like Forrest Gump’s box of chocolates: you never know what you’re going to get. It could be glass forests with shape-shifting reindeer that used to live on the moon, or blue kangaroos that mine the underground for memories encased within precious gems, or families living in giant Samovars that serve teas called the Elephant’s Fiery Heart or the Crocodile’s Long Dream.

Like a post-modern Alice in Wonderland (though Valente has coined the term “myth-punk” to describe her work), this is the sequel to her first children’s novel The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of her Own Making, detailing the continued adventures of young wartime girl September throughout Fairyland. But this is not the Fairyland of Enid Blyton, filled with relatively harmless creatures, but the Fairyland of older, darker tales.

And September is older too. No longer twelve but thirteen, her heart is beginning to grow from its childlike simplicity, learning strange things like empathy for villains and romantic feelings for her friend Saturday. Worst of all, with an adult heart comes a sense of responsibility, and when September finally returns to Fairyland a year after her first visit, she finds it in need of a heroine.

Last time she was there, September gave up her shadow to save another, and is horrified to find that since then, her shadow has been styling herself the Queen of Fairyland Below. With the help of the frightening Alleyman, September’s shadow – or the Hollow Queen – has been stealing shadows and dragging them down to the revels below. But though the shadows are pleased with their newfound freedom, their absence from Fairyland Above is leading to a sharp decrease in magic. Little by little, Fairyland is becoming an ordinary place, no different from the farmlands that September left behind her.

Naturally, it is up to September to find a way to stop her shadow from causing such havoc. She would love to have her friends A-Through-L the Wyverary (that is, a wyvern who is also part-library) and Saturday the blue-skinned Marid with her, but she’s joined by their shadows instead. And is there really much difference between a person and their shadow…?

September delves into the depths of Fairyland Below (described as “full of devils and dragons, and between them all they’ve about half a cup of nice and sweet”) to find the Sleeping Prince – the one person who might be able to overthrow the Hollow Queen. Slumbering in the centre of a labyrinth at the very bottom of the world, it’s a journey that’ll involve September’s first kiss, her first betrayal, and the painful growth of her heart when she’s forced to make one hard decision after another.

Valente’s narrative voice is a delight, prone to breaking the fourth wall and sharing personal thoughts on various ideas and events. Often she comments on the tropes she uses in the shaping her story; one of my favourites would have to be a character’s theory on E.K.T. Fields, which postulates that certain objects of quests cast a field around themselves: an Everyone Knows That Field. As she puts it: “When an E.K.T. Field is in effect, everyone within its power will know a good deal about the Object, even if they can’t say where they heard about it or why it’s so deathly important to remember all that dusty old nonsense. They’ll chat about it with any passing stranger like it’s sizzling local gossip.”

The story can get incredibly complex at times, and relies quite heavily on familiarity with the preceding book. As incredible as Valente’s imagination is, often the creatures September meet on her Quest can feel a bit random and arbitrary – and sure, such is the way of Fairyland, but there was a slightly more cohesive shape to the storyline of The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland. To continue with the chocolate box analogy – it’s important not to eat too many at once. Pace yourself, and savour things as they come.

But as a sequel, this is certainly a success. Picking up several plot-threads that the last book left dangling, it follows September into her adolescence and all the added trials it provides: the first stirrings of romantic love, the recognition of moral ambiguity, the battle between doing what “must” be done and what feels instinctively wrong to do, the capacity for mercy and forgiveness – if there’s a moral to this tale it’s that growing up is tough, but the benefits outweigh the loss of innocence. Maybe.

Filled with dodos and trains, goblin markets and tea houses, onion men and minotaurs, Valente has put together a story that’s rich enough to make you feel slightly drunk. Strewn through with bits of wisdom, humorous asides, amazing invention and poignant insights, The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland is a strong follow-up as well as a great tale in its own right.

~Rebecca Fisher


  • Ruth Arnell

    RUTH ARNELL (on FanLit's staff January 2009 — August 2013) earned a Ph.D. in political science and is a college professor in Idaho. From a young age she has maxed out her library card the way some people do credit cards. Ruth started reading fantasy with A Wrinkle in Time and The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe — books that still occupy an honored spot on her bookshelf today. Ruth and her husband have a young son, but their house is actually presided over by a flame-point Siamese who answers, sometimes, to the name of Griffon.

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  • 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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  • Rebecca Fisher

    REBECCA FISHER, with us since January 2008, earned a Masters degree in literature at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand. Her thesis included a comparison of how C.S. Lewis and Philip Pullman each use the idea of mankind’s Fall from Grace to structure the worldviews presented in their fantasy series. Rebecca is a firm believer that fantasy books written for children can be just as meaningful, well-written and enjoyable as those for adults, and in some cases, even more so. Rebecca lives in New Zealand. She is the winner of the 2015 Sir Julius Vogel Award for Best SFF Fan Writer.

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