Thursday, January 19, 2012

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

The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherynne M. Valente
Published: Feiwel and Friends, 2011
Series: Book 1 of Fairyland
Awards Won: Andre Norton Award, Locus YA Award

The Book:

“Twelve-year-old September is an ordinary girl who lives what seems to her a quiet, constricting life.  Her father is gone to war and her mother works, leaving September mostly to herself in their home.  One day, the Green Wind arrives, offering to take her away for adventures in Fairyland.

Without a backward glance, September takes him up on his offer. However, for all its wonders, Fairyland is a tricky, dangerous place.  September makes new friends as she travels, including a ‘Wyverary’ named A-Through-L and a Marid boy named Saturday. She also finds new enemies, such as the cruel Marquess who has taken over Fairyland after the disappearance of the good Queen Mallow.

Though her journey started as a whim, it is going to take every ounce of resourcefulness, courage, strength and compassion September can muster to see her way to the end of it!” ~Allie

Here is my very late review for the final selection of the Calico Reaction blog’s 2011 book club.  This is my first foray into Valente’s work, though I’ve heard a lot of praise for her novels.  The Girl Who… was originally a fictional children’s book referenced in Valente’s novel Palimpset. The novel feels complete in itself, though I can certainly see where there are many more stories to tell in this universe.  So far, Valente has published a prequel (The Girl Who Ruled Fairyland—For a Little While), and I imagine we’re likely to see more young adult novels set in this world in the future.

My Thoughts:

The basic story of The Girl Who… is pretty familiar—a child is whisked away to a magical land that is plagued by a cruel ruler.  In very general terms, it has a lot in common with other children’s classics, such as The Wizard of Oz, The Chronicles of Narnia, or Alice in Wonderland. It also features a technique commonly found in old children’s fiction, where the narrator constantly inserts comments and asides into the flow of the story. The novel, though, seems conscious of the nods it’s making towards previous work, and manages to keep its own spark of originality. For me, the vibrant writing, profusion of imaginative creatures and societies, and unexpectedly serious turns of the plot helped The Girl Who… to stand as a wonderful new example of this familiar kind of story.

In the beginning, the writing was playfully descriptive and more than a little silly (intentionally so—that is not an insult).  The writing occasionally felt a little too self-consciously clever and whimsical, but it was not long before I was enjoying the story so much that I didn’t mind.  The Girl Who… progressed with an impressive forward momentum that packed a lot of story and subtext into a pretty short novel.  September was constantly moving through new situations and problems, and meeting all sorts of new supernatural creatures.  These creatures included a wish-granting Marid, a ‘wyverary’ (half-wyvern, half-library), 100+-year-old sentient household objects, a golem made of soap, and many others.  I loved the constantly changing setting and never-ending introductions of new beings.

While the vividly described supernatural elements gave the story a fun and exciting sense of place, it was the characters that really captured my attention.  Like most tales of this kind, The Girl Who… combines a fantastical adventure with a story of maturation.  In the beginning, September is described as “Somewhat Heartless”, as all children are, though she’s a well-meaning, pleasant heroine.  Through her harrowing journey, September is forced to a deeper understanding of herself and the effects of her actions on others.  I especially liked how she was confronted with difficult decisions that had no clear ‘right’ response.  Like most of us humans, she simply had to move on, carrying nothing but an uneasy and never-confirmed hope that she’d done the right thing. Altogether, September is a fallible, dynamic heroine, and I loved following her story.

Of course, the wonderful characterization doesn’t end with September.  Her closest companions—A -Through-L and Saturday—were also fully formed characters, and I could easily see them starring in their own adventures.  In fact, it seemed that everyone and everything in the novel had a strong, memorable personality, all the way down to September’s helpful coat.  Even the villain, the Marquess, is far from the cardboard character one might assume her to be at her first entrance into the story.  Fairyland is so wide and varied, and filled with such interesting characters, that I am sure Valente can find many different stories to tell there in the future.  

My Rating: 4.5/5

The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making is, in my opinion, a children’s novel that has enough depth to be enjoyed by adults.  The imagery is amazing, and the characters are memorable and very easy to love.  September is a wonderfully tenacious, imperfect heroine, and even the villainess is the hero of her own story.  While it has a lot in common with other child-whisked-away-to-magic-world stories, I think this novel’s individual strengths are its lovely writing, creative supernatural world, and the unexpected places Valente takes the story.  This novel does feel complete, but it is clear that there are many more stories to be told in Valente’s Fairyland! 


  1. I bought this book for my daughter so I'm happy to read that you liked it so much. Perhaps I'll read it with her now...

  2. Thanks for your comment! I hope your daughter likes it, and that you do, too, if you end up reading it :).

  3. Excellent review! I very much enjoyed this book, as well.

    I followed a breadcrumb trail from Worlds Without End to discover your blog. You have some great books queued up as upcoming reviews. I look forward to the next update!

  4. Thanks, and thanks for your comment! I'm working on the review for "Gaslight Dogs" now, so I should have it up in the next few days :).