Saturday, December 22, 2012

The Girl Who Ate Fairyland

This is a more *traditional* review that I wrote for a class and hoped somebody would like to publish, but no takers yet:

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

Children’s fantasy is traditionally filled with tempting foodstuffs-from Turkish delight to Bertie Bott’s Every Flavor Beans-but when one finds oneself more engaged with the “great orange-chiffon pumpkin soup with candied almonds…and a chocolate cake so rich and dense and moist it shone black” than the heroine’s exploits, what does that say about the sustenance of the plot?

Part of the fault lies with Catherynne M. Valente’s nearly unparalleled linguistic flair and her preoccupation with transforming or surpassing the conventions of children’s literature. Her prose is literally delicious and her daringness is charming-until you’re more than halfway through and the heroine, despite encountering various and sundry folks and enjoying numerous meals, is still unsuccessfully and halfheartedly pursuing her original ill-defined quest.

September, The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making in the earlier novel of that name, returns in The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There. But this time, the title character isn’t September, it’s her shadow, Halloween or the Hollow Queen. In territory explored more fully in Ursula K. Le Guin’s Wizard of Earthsea (a much less confusing moral allegory for fantasy-minded youngsters), Valente imagines a world where shadows have decided they don’t want to be attached to their “more real” selves anymore and under Halloween’s leadership have absconded to Fairyland-Below, where they can revel in their newfound selfhoods. The shadows, as it happens, are substantial enough to host delectable nightly feasts.

Since no one in a children’s story can entirely have their own way (lest selfishness be celebrated), this decision has adverse consequences for Fairyland-Above. Magic, it turns out, comes from shadows (Why don’t we have magic in the real world then? It isn’t explained) and, as the shadows leave, fairy folk are drained of their powers. When September re-enters Fairyland on her thirteenth birthday, equipped with a “raw and new, fast and fierce” teenage heart, she is galvanized to defeat Halloween by a distressing radio report and dwindling magic ration cards. If the shadows won’t desist, Fairyland will soon become ordinary-land.

The reason that Valente has chosen to set September’s reality in Nebraska during the Second World War continues to be unclear, unless as homage to The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. One would think that the more recent wars in Iraq and Afghanistan would serve equally well in claiming September’s absent father and the recession could just as handily mirror the magical deprivations of Fairyland. Many of Valente’s decisions are as willful as they are whimsical. A pair of crows that the narrator habitually follows are dead ends, so are a new ally named Aubergine and even the eventual result of the belabored quest. When Valente writes, “The Hollow Queen hated rules, and wanted to bite them all over,” she could just as well be describing herself.

Valente’s hearty sympathy for villains is her great strength and her great weakness. She wants a happy ending for the poor misunderstood little girls, even and especially if they cut off your braid and glued your shoes to the floor, and she’s willing to bend her story over backwards to do it. But the sheer litany of betrayal and obfuscation, and new characters-ye gods, the new characters-and their victuals, required in this operation sink the shadowy ship before it can swim in the Forgetful Sea.

Hope for the trilogy rests on the upcoming third book and meanwhile one can’t accuse Valente of not leaving enough to chew on.

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