We can all name some classic children’s portal fantasies, and the worlds they introduce us to, like Oz, Narnia, and Wonderland. Time and again, writers have tried to replicate the writing styles that created those worlds for us, and it’s super hard to distinguish oneself from such giants of fantasy. However, Cathrynne M. Valente rose to the challenge and brought us The Girl Who Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making. Such a title almost seems to parody the larger-than-life adventures of characters like Alice or Dorothy Gale, but don’t worry, this book does not dare laugh at such things—it celebrates them with its whole heart.
September is an Omaha farm girl who wants a taste of adventure. One day, a creature called the Green Wind arrives on a flying leopard and scoops her out of her kitchen window, taking her into the sky to Fairyland. As September quickly discovers, Fairyland is a strange, but magical world, with a few rules she must abide by. She learns that Fairyland is under the tyrannical rule of the Marquess, who usurped the power of Fairyland’s beloved queen, and goes on a quest to retrieve a magical spoon for a witch. September gathers a few friends on her journey, learning more and more about this strange new land.
The influence of classic portal fantasies is all over this book, starting from September’s origins as a prairie farm girl, gathering strange friends across her journey, to defeating a tyrannical villain. Not that that is anything to complain about. The whimsy and magic are still there, and they leap off the page. Before I knew it, I was breaking bedtime a few times, sharing September’s adventures.
The book does start pretty fast. We head straight into Fairyland from the first sentence, with no big introduction to September and her life in Omaha. That was a little jarring to me since we didn’t really get grounded into September and her normal life. Not like in The Wizard of Oz, for example, where we at least get a page or two describing life in Kansas before the twister arrives.
Not that September’s old life never gets properly explored. We just don’t waste any time heading into September’s adventure.
September feels like a combination of Alice and Dorothy, being clever and curious and victim to a few tricks. Luckily, she has a few friends, like A-through-L (or just Ell), a Wyverary who was born in a library and knows about everything from A to L. He is probably the most distinctive of September’s friends, being on the cover of the book, and having the most interesting backstory. His wings are also chained up so he cannot fly, so you wait for the chance to see him become a true wyvern again (which is different from a dragon, just to note). He is also warm and friendly, just the sort of wyvern I would prefer on my own Fairyland adventure.
The Marquess is a compelling and somewhat sympathetic villain. Even if her plans for Fairyland are totally bananas, you understand how she got to where she is. She does pull the whole “you and I are not that different” spiel with September, but it works to great effect.
The means by which children arrive in Fairyland was quite creative and adds a further sense of urgency and bittersweetness. Long story short, every child’s individual time spent in Fairyland depends on these magic clocks. When that clock strikes midnight, that child will be sent right back home to the moment they left. It’s completely random for every child, but still a great touch to this world.
The writing style really draws the whole thing together. It involves a classic narrator voice who directly addresses the reader in little interludes as they tell the story, adding to the book’s warm, fairytale quality. This book could be great for reading aloud to a child at bedtime because the voice is comforting and imaginative. Heck, an adult can enjoy this story aloud before bedtime and be drawn back to that childhood place of being sent off to sleep with a magical story to dream about.
I stated once that I can count on one hand the books from the last ten years that have thoroughly sucked me in. This book took a little extra time to suck me in, but I cannot pretend that I was not greatly drawn to September and Fairyland. If you are at all a fan of portal fantasy, it is worth a read for the cozy fairytale style, fascinating world, and engaging characters. This is the first of a series, naturally, so there should be plenty more to enjoy after this first chapter.