This book is a delight, but some stage-setting before getting to specifics:
Like Lev Grossman’s The Magicians, this is a fantasy that is also a commentary on fantasy, a fairy tale that is also a commentary on fairy tales. Such works are more common now because the fantasy genre has a long enough history that, inevitably, current work is read to a significant extent in light of previous work. Cliche avoidance has become a major concern. Indeed, we are now in the second generation, at least, of cliches, in which the reactions against first-generation cliches have themselves become cliches. One example is the “sand-blasted with grit” approach, as one commentator put it, in which everyone says the F word a lot, rape and incest abound, elves become terminally depressed and drink themselves to death, etc. Another second-generation cliche, closely associated with the first, is the dark, conflicted anti-hero or sort-of-hero who has significant flaws. (Reviews of such works inevitably use the phrase “shades of gray.”) Another is the princess who feels stifled as a princess and wants to be a warrior or scholar. Typically the irony is leavened with a large measure of affection for the classics. I don’t think I’ve ever read such fantasy-commenting-on-fantasy that seemed spiteful in its intent.
One more prefatory point: Certain things are “cliches” because either they’re artistically sound (e.g., the protagonist’s achievement comes only after a struggle, otherwise there’s no dramatic tension) or because people like them (the good guys win in the end). People like the classic coming-of-age story because it involves struggle and because it’s everyone’s story (excepting people who are still living in their parents’ basement when they’re 35, I guess). People like to see a person confronted with a hard choice and, in the end, make the right choice. Also, there are only X basic plots, as we are often told, where X is typically a single-digit number. This unavoidably biases things in the direction of “cliches” (many of which might equally aptly be termed “eternal truths of the human soul”).
In this context comes Catherynne Valente’s The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making (2009), a pleasurable and occasionally profound mezcla of classic fairy tale elements. At the start September, a 12-year-old girl, is whisked off to Fairyland by the Green Wind, the embodiment of a Harsh Air. He tells her, before bringing her to Fairyland, “Obviously, the eating or drinking of Fairy foodstuffs constitutes a binding contract to return at least once a year in accordance with seasonal myth cycles.” They pause at a border town where he explains, “Fairyland is an old place, and old things have strange hungers.” Accordingly, some of the requirements for entrance into Fairyland: Give something up. There must be blood. Tell a lie. Right here at the start, it is plain that Valente is pulling this stuff straight from some sort of fairy tale Well.
The book’s ancestors are both the ancient oral fairy tales and the written ones of relatively recent provenance like the Narnia books. In Fairyland September encounters dragons, witches, and marids. She frees someone from an evil queen’s prison. She learns that True Names contain great magical power; you must guard yours closely. In several cute little meta moments the author directly addresses the reader, a common occurrence in the written tales in Fairyland’s bloodline. She also occasionally addresses the reader indirectly, as when a dragon tells September, “[T]he geographical capital of Fairyland is fickle and has a rather short temper. I’m afraid the whole thing moves around according to the needs of narrative.”
A human can enter Fairyland as one of the Stumbled or one of the Ravished. For the Stumbled, think of Alice plummeting down the rabbit hole into Wonderland and Lucy wandering through the wardrobe into Narnia. The Ravished, in contrast, are taken to Fairyland by magical beings (e.g., the Wild Hunt, people made prisoner of faeries because they’ve eaten faery food, the abductions carried out by Susanna Clarke’s Gentleman in Green and Raven King). Brought to Fairyland by the Green Wind, September is technically one of the Ravished. This turns out to be important later.
Soon after arriving September learns that Fairyland is in the thrall of a powerful evil queen. Cliche? No. Yes, but… no. This is where things get thick, and events both do, and don’t, develop in ways you expect. September agrees to help some witches get their magical spoon back from the queen, who stole it. At that point her adventures become less meandering and more purposeful.
Valente creates some gorgeous moments. E.g., just arrived in Fairyland, September sees a signpost shaped as a four-armed woman. The arm pointing east says, To lose your way. The arm pointing north, To lose your life. The arm pointing south, To lose your mind. The arm pointing west, To lose your heart. September goes west. The narrator remarks,
You and I, being grown-up and having lost our hearts at least twice or thrice along the way, might shut our eyes and cry out, Not that way, child! But as we have said, September was Somewhat Heartless, and felt herself reasonably safe on that road. Children always do. … Behind her, the beautiful four-armed woman who pointed the way closed her eyes and shook her birch-wood head, rueful and knowing.
I won’t give away the ending, but Holy Crap it’s not what you expect. You will not see it coming.
Mostly this is a paean to fairy tales. If it were an academic monograph, the back of the book would say that it “Summarizes and extends the crucial research in the field.” What’s the fiction-ish equivalent of that? That’s The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making.