The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There by Catherynne M. Valente. Illustrated by Ana Juan
It’s over a year since our heroine September was last in Fairyland, as narrated in The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making. It’s been a year of social isolation and anxious waiting for the Green Wind to come to take her back again. On her birthday, she finally finds a way back in – only to find that Fairyland has changed for the worse, and it’s all her fault. Her own shadow, the one she allowed to be cut off to save another child in the first book, has turned against Fairyland. Now, she leads other shadows from Fairyland Below as Halloween, the Hollow Queen of Fairyland Below. All sort of shadows are being stolen from the residents of Fairyland Above, and with it, their magic. September sets off to right things, heedless of the danger. In Fairyland Below, she meets the shadows of her old friends Ell the Wyverary and Saturday. The shadows are people in their own rights, normally forced to stay with their owners. On their own, the shadows are similar but with hidden and shown qualities reversed – the shadow of Ell is shy rather than bold and friendly, where the shadow of shy Saturday is much bolder. September travels with Ell and Saturday for some way, but they are not quite the same as their real selves, and she must eventually abandon them. The narrative is somewhat more unified than the last book, which felt very episodic, but September still meets lots of strange and interesting people with odd but set ideas – things like magical living Markets run by goblin Economics and quiet Physicks with the Night-Dodo Aubergine, who was quite a nice characters.
On the whole, the story feels darker and more serious than the first one. The whole story is told by a very intrusive narrator, about whom I had mixed feelings. On the one hand, having narrators with their own voices is a venerable tradition, and reminds me pleasantly of other such books, like the Chronicles of Narnia. On the other hand, this narrator is much more intrusive and possessed of very vocal and odd opinions. For example, a major theme of the book is that children are heartless – this was in the last book too – but that teens are just beginning to grow baby hearts. Perhaps Valente means something else by this, but it seems to me that what she means is that children are incapable of empathy. This is just patently false – even a toddler will try to cheer up a sad baby or parent. The narrator claims to be friends with the reader at the same time as blithely announcing that it is a sly narrator, and will therefore withhold significant plot details from us or September, so as to make things more interesting for us. This, frankly, is just irritating. Any narrator should have a better reason than that to withhold plot details. I find I can’t say, though, that I wish the narrator weren’t there, because that narrator is necessary for the feeling of the book. While my total reaction might be coming off as lukewarm, it’s not that it was a tepid book but rather that there were parts that I loved and parts that I was just less sure about. In any case, this is one that middle graders and those who like middle grade fantasy should enjoy.