Another kind review of The War of the First Day!

From Bob R. Milne of Beauty in Ruins:

The War of the First Day is an epic fantasy novel that has something of a Mistborn feel to it, with the comic book sensibilities of a Dr. Strange or Green Lantern. …Magic permeates the tale, from beginning to end, and it drives the plot as much as it accentuates it. As for the sorceresses, they are both the heroes and the villains, locked in a rebellious conflict that began with an act of near-genocide, populating a story that is almost wholly female-focused.

…It’s predominantly focused on the war between two factions of witches – a war of attrition that’s full of massive battles, covert operations, and scenes of torture and interrogation… It would have been easy to let the magic and the spectacle overwhelm the story, but Fleet keeps his characters at the forefront, developing them quickly and significantly throughout. There’s also a lot of thought beneath the story, with some interesting themes on the power of knowledge… logic, and even cryptography, not to explain away the magic, but to provide context and a deeper meaning.

…The writing is fluid, with some nice terms of phrase, and the dialogue is worthy of the action, which is where this veers back towards epic fantasy and away from comic book clichés.

I was hoping for a lot out of The War of the First Day, and I am pleased to say it delivered. My only regret, in fact, is that I let it linger on the shelf for so long.

Review of Last Call, by Tim Powers

This novel is an excellent example of magic being incorporated into a modern setting so convincingly that you find yourself half believing it.

In the Las Vegas area, a game of power is played out over the course of decades by a small number of people who can use magic. (Magic affects everyone, it is implied, but very few people are aware of this.) The magical system, based on the Tarot, is heavily Jungian; it is powered by archetypes of the conscious and unconscious human mind. The story involves figures like The Fisher King and The Fool, as well as greater powers like Artemis/Diana, Dionysus, and Death.

Those who understand the ways that these archetypes are linked to the human soul can use them to their advantage… but this often – or always? – requires some sort of sacrifice or trade-off. The girls who are trying to assume the role of Artemis cannot ever touch meat or alcohol – literally never; one time in their life and they’re permanently ruined for the goddess role! The man who (unwittingly) plays the role of the Fisher King can’t touch alcohol without it slowly killing him, etc. This is because they are in opposition to the god Dionysus, the god of wine.

As often occurs in this subgenre, the magic is presented subtly at first. In the opening pages, we’re not even sure if the magic is real or if the man who is trying to use it is insane. Later it is presented as if it’s merely magic in the psychological sense of allowing you to influence other people. Soon enough, though, it becomes clear that the magic is quite literal, e.g. the main villain can kill people and take over their bodies; he inhabits them.

In one astounding sequence of scenes the hero, Scott, gives in to his craving for alcohol. The spirit of alcohol, Dionysus, appears to Scott in the form of the ghost of his late wife, and Scott’s plunge back into drunkenness manifests in his mind as a sexual orgy with her. At some level he knows this, knows that what seems to him like wild sex with his wife on the hotel’s sweat-drenched sheets is really him drinking himself well-nigh into a coma. But the illusion seems real, and Scott doesn’t much care. When it’s over and he has started to recover, he thinks, If that was sex, I am ready to gladly embrace Death.

Incidentally, this scene is an excellent example of a literal event and its metaphorical meaning blending perfectly. An addictive drug as seduction could hardly be portrayed more vividly. And of course, as with all good metaphors, the metaphorical reading is optional; the scene functions perfectly well as a literal manifestation of Dionysus using magical illusion to attack one of his enemies.

(This example also gives the lie to those who claim to find no value in the fantasy genre. Addiction as a psychological attack could not be presented so forcefully without magic, because we need Dionysus as a literal enemy to make this scene possible at the literal level. And of course, it can’t function metaphorically if it doesn’t function literally. I rarely bother arguing with idiots who disdain fantasy – a certain level of idiocy deters one from bothering – but sometimes it’s irresistible. While I’m on the subject: In the Harry Potter series, Hermione Granger has to protect her family from her enemies, who might strike at her family in order to strike at her. To protect them she must erase all knowledge of her from their minds, so that even mind-reading enemies cannot link them to her. She uses a magical spell to permanently delete herself from her parents’ memories, and never sees them again. Such an emotionally wrenching scene would be impossible without that magical spell.)

Scott and his wife’s ghost, or rather the illusion of his wife’s ghost, then drive out into the desert (for reasons I’ve forgotten). As they’re tooling along, Scott opens a bottle of wine and says to her, “Would you like some of this?”

“I am it, darling,” she replies.

After they’ve reached their destination and are searching an abandoned building in the desert, the image of his wife begins to decay. Soon enough, it is apparent what it really is for Scott. He looks at the crouching skeleton, decorated with a few scraps of hanging flesh and surmounted by a malevolently grinning skull, and realizes, This was indifferent Death. This was nobody’s ally.

In terms of the plotting, I have only one objection (SPOILER WARNING): Scott has lost his eye and his father knows it. So his father doesn’t recognize him when he shows up again in the 1969 Assumption game? It doesn’t even occur to him that the guy with one eye might be his son? Come on, Powers! This could have been dealt with somehow, e.g., Scott is self-conscious about his eye, so he wears shades. People have been known to do this in card games! The same objection applies to the second set of Assumption games that are played circa 1990. Seriously, another player with one eye? His father doesn’t notice or get suspicious? Aargh!

But overall, this is a very good novel indeed. I cannot recall ever having read anything quite like it. I suppose some of Stephen King’s fiction from the 1970s and 1980s has a similar combination of narrative propulsion and magical peril, e.g. The Stand.

Powers wrote two sequels to Last Call, but this novel is so good that one fears a sequel might be a let-down. I intend to re-read it before I take a shot at a sequel, so that before I have to absorb more material, I can re-absorb the pleasures of this ka-pow of a book at a leisurely pace, instead of the furious pace at which I first read it.

Review of Nothing Lasts Forever, by Roderick Thorp

The movie Die Hard was very loosely based on this. The novel is much darker than the movie. The novel manages to be both didactic and cynically amoral; there are no good guys in it. The Marxist terrorists are just Marxist terrorists; they’re not glamorized at all. But at the same time, the corporation whose building they take over is also portrayed as a bad guy, looting the third world and engaging in arms dealing to fascists, etc. It’s weird. There’s a hint of “capitalists are evil and corrupt and deserve everything bad that happens to them,” but it is also made plain that the Marxists are nothing but killers who enjoy killing, and that when people like them obtain power, the next thing that happens is massacres and genocide. This is stated explicitly. Therefore, Thorp really does not seem to be taking anyone’s side. Also, instead of the cop’s ex-wife in the building, it’s his daughter, and she dies at the end, plunging to her death along with the head of the terrorist gang. Gah, why? Is there a message there? Or is it just a tragedy? It’s hard to tell what Thorp intended.

I think Hollywood made the right call when they transferred this to the screen. They removed the cynicism and political aspects (is nihilism political?) and turned it into a battle against a group of common thieves. In other words, they turned it into a good action movie.

Pacing and structure: The beginning is horribly slow. Nothing interesting happens until page 40, which is when our hero first hears screams from elsewhere in the building. Before that, it’s just a bunch of largely purposeless ruminations about his professional and personal past. It tells us the hero is familiar with anti-terrorism methods, but that could have been handled in less than a page. PAAAADDING! I admit it; skipped ahead. The Los Angeles Times called the novel, “A ferocious, bloody, raging book so single-mindedly brilliant in concept and execution it should be read at a single sitting.” Well… once it gets going, sure. In fact, I did read it in one day. But the beginning suggests that the first draft wasn’t long enough and Thorp had to pad it out.

I’m not sure who the target audience for this novel would be now. Even if you like the movie, that’s not a good reason to read the novel because the movie is significantly better. I think perhaps the best candidate for this is an aspiring Tinseltown screenwriter who would like an example of how to take literary source material and turn it into a movie. Unlike many other cases that come to mind (cough, The Hobbit cough), Hollywood’s choices in conversion here were spot-on.

Third review of The War of the First Day!

Oh my goodness, I’m having a good week! Hard on the heels of the review I posted yesterday…

Gordon A. Long of Renaissance Writer has reviewed The War of the First Day and he gave it 5 out of 5 stars!

Some excerpts:

“The War of the First Day” by Thomas Fleet

I am always impressed when a writer takes a stand and sticks to it. In the case of “The War of the First Day,” the whole book is about women. The only males are unnamed enemy soldiers of the cannon fodder variety. Interesting that the author is a male. It’s worth a read just to find out how he approaches it.

All the nastiness of this war is created by women. Witches, to be precise. Ultra-powerful witches who can move at breathless speed, fly, fight viciously with knives, and beat and torture each other with great gusto. It is the story of a woman who desires the ultimate in knowledge and is willing to risk the whole world in its pursuit…

The main character, Lilta, is an apprentice witch who develops nicely over the course of the story. As the war of attrition continues through the frozen land, she snatches what time she can to pore over books of magic/mathematics/logic/cryptology, trying desperately to learn enough to decode the ancient texts and find out what scheme the enemy is trying to get away with. She also grows into her own skin, moving towards the powerful witch she will become.

…There is plenty of conflict and well-described action, balanced by the discussion of ideas. At the deepest level the conflict is about logic and communication. “If this is true, then that must be.” … And all of it is encoded in the great parchment of the world: the pattern of leaves dancing in the wind, the sound of rain on the roof, the swirl of the waves. It’s hard to describe. Ya gotta read the book.

If you are the kind of person who would like to be able to understand the term, “The world is a self-referential text,” then this book is for you. By the end, you will know. For everyone else, you can pretty well ignore the philosophical physics and enjoy a good war story.

Second review of The War of the First Day!

Stuart Aken has reviewed The War of the First Day and he gave it 5 out of 5 stars!

Stuart’s link (sans stars) is here:
The War of the First Day, by Thomas Fleet, Reviewed.

Stuart’s review at Amazon is here.

Some excerpts:

The War of the First Day, by Thomas Fleet, Reviewed

Fantasy with a difference, this novel, set in a world of witchcraft, is remarkable for its language and surprising use of logic. The story is told through the first person point of view of an aspirant witch caught up in a civil war among her sisters. There is the usual fantasy ingredient, essential to my mind, of good versus evil, but this is modified by the clever characterisation that depicts the good witches as flawed. No one here is perfect…

Regarding the characters, I found them all, mostly women, to be utterly credible in terms of their personalities even though their actual existence is, of course, entirely fanciful. They are drawn with consistency and made real by their desires, hopes, dreams and mistakes. …I forgot this book had been written by a male author as I was so immersed in the world described by the female protagonist that she became very ‘real’ to me…

Having not read a book similar to this, I can’t compare it with another. But I can say I enjoyed it and I’m sure many readers of fantasy will discover this is a good read. It isn’t a book that fits easily into a subgenre, and that suits me fine.

Review of The Library at Mount Char, by Scott Hawkins

From-the-hip overview: This novel is a like a combination of Lev Grossman’s Magicians series and Max Barry’s Lexicon. In particular, some similarities to The Magicians lie in the speculations about what magic might be like if young people in the real world had it. (Grossman and Hawkins have very different takes on this, though.) A major similarity to Lexicon is the bad-ass female character who does things that are mysterious at first, but are explained gradually, with a nonlinear narrative structure.

Story summary: Twelve children are orphaned when a catastrophe destroys the subdivision in which they live. They are adopted by a man called “Father,” who is an extremely powerful magician. In fact, he may or may not be God.

Father’s house is a vast library of magical knowledge, and he forces the children to become his apprentices. Each child specializes in a particular branch of knowledge. Some of these specialties, e.g. languages, seem prosaic, and others, like traveling in the land of the dead, not so prosaic. But even the prosaic-seeming specialties really aren’t; for example, the viewpoint character, Carolyn, is assigned the specialty of languages, and she has to learn literally every language ever spoken by humans or anything else. Father does things to her memory to make this possible, and does things to time, so she can learn them all before she’s 50 gazillion years old. She also knows the languages of animals, storm clouds, and volcanos. There is a specific reason that Father assigns Carolyn this specialty, which is revealed, very nonchalantly, toward the end of the novel.

Another specialty is war, and this is where the overt conflict in the novel comes from. The child David is assigned war, and Father gives him, as with all the other children, various abilities appropriate for his specialty. In particular, David can read people’s minds to an extent, especially in the heat of battle, which makes it very difficult to surprise him. Not surprisingly, since he’s essentially a god of war, he is horrifically cruel, not to mention murderous, and so he is novel’s main antagonist.

Or is he?

For a while we’re kept guessing about this, as Carolyn’s ruminations are largely withheld from us, the readers. This is particularly appropriate given an antagonist who can read minds, because there are certain things which she can hardly allow herself to think, so of course we can’t see her thinking them.

Due to the masking of Carolyn’s thoughts and the non-linear narrative, Carolyn’s motives and character are revealed gradually and sometimes jarringly. (When I say jarringly, I don’t mean that Hawkins handles characterization poorly; it’s plain that he does this intentionally.) We are constantly changing our mind about Carolyn. First she seems like a good guy, then a bad guy, then a good… until we finally understand what she was trying to accomplish and the constraints she was operating within.

Apparently some readers had trouble with the non-linear structure, but this reader had no difficulty. In fact, the non-linear structure is simply the use of flashbacks, helpfully identified with the chapter tag “Interlude.”

Speaking of structure, though, there was an aspect that was a little bit Say what?: When the main conflict is resolved there are still 95 pages left. There follows what struck me as an extended coda. There is a point to it, it turns out, which has to do with the internal conflict, as opposed to the external conflict. But the managing of this, structurally, could have been done in a better way.

The book also has a lot of horrific violence, to the point that some have labeled it Horror, as opposed to Fantasy. To quote Louis XIV in Stephenson’s Baroque Cycle, “Persons of a sensitive disposition will avert their eyes.” The horrible things people do to each other! That alone keeps it from being a five out of five, for me. It is simply too much. Don’t get me wrong; this is a good novel. But, for example, the tortures, er, punishments, that “Father” inflicts on his adopted children/students are almost unbearable to read.

Overall assessment: This is certainly above-average modern fantasy. But don’t read it if you can’t stomach extreme violence. The two specific examples mentioned below aren’t even a tenth of it.

SPOILERS FOLLOW. Read no further if you don’t want certain surprises given away:

● Another similarity to Grossman’s The Magicians: The same fight that happens over and over again, as the magician guiding everything seeks to engineer a timeline in which the outcome is satisfactory.

● Other similarities to Barry’s Lexicon: The main female protagonist is supported by a secondary male protagonist who doesn’t understand what’s going on, but whose involvement is crucial in the long run. In both novels the initial ignorance of the male protagonist makes him a bewildered secondary viewpoint character, and the non-linear narrative keeps us bewildered right along with him at first. In both works, the language skills of the female protagonist are crucial.

● What do I mean when I say that the violence is horrific? Well, for example, Father has a grill that is a bronze bull large enough to hold a large mass of meat for cooking. Guess what he does when one of his children is disobedient? Yes, he does. He actually puts David inside it, and cooks him until he’s dead. He can resurrect people from the dead, so this is not permanent, but that’s not the point. How could Hawkins bear to write such a scene?

And then there’s Margaret, whose specialty is traveling in the land of the dead. How does she become proficient at this? Father kills her and resurrects her, over and over again, for years. Each time he kills her it’s in a different way, so eventually Margaret has died in just about every way that it’s possible for a person to die. Not surprisingly, she quickly becomes insane.

● Is Father God? Ultimately this is left ambiguous, but… Near the end Father remarks that although he did not create the universe, he did add light to its physics. See Genesis 1:3.

● Why does Father assign Carolyn the language specialty? Because she is his designated successor, and the most powerful magic, the magic that lets one change the past, is written down in a book in which the words on the pages change languages every few seconds. Only a person who has mastered all languages could hope to make any sense of it.

Review of The Maltese Falcon, by Dashiell Hammett

The plot is unpredictable and satisfying, and a good reason to read this novel. But it’s not the main reason. The main reason is…

The people! God, the people! It’s not a nice group portrait, but it’s an amazing one.

Cynical, manipulative, ruthlessly, remorselessly dishonest.

Brigid O’Shaughnessy (if that’s her real name), who when one of her lies is uncovered, apologizes… and tells another one. When that one’s exposed, she apologizes and tells another. You never actually know if you get the truth from her.

Caspar Gutman, who considers letting Wilbur – “He’s like a son to me!” – hang for a murder because, well, I can get another son. WTF? I don’t think you’re clear on the concept of a son, dude.

The main character, Sam Spade, who sleeps with his partner’s wife (stay classy, Sam) and thinks of his partner as a sap. But when his partner is murdered, hunts down the killer, because

When a man’s partner is killed, he’s supposed to do something about it. … we were in the detective business. Well, when one of your organization gets killed, it’s bad business to let the killer get away with it.

The way people commit murder and arson, etc., just to get their hands on a valuable bauble. It’s just money, people. Sheesh.

The endless, endless layers of lies, from everyone, not just O’Shaughnessy, such that you never hear the truth at all, or if you do, you’re never sure because it might just be another lie. It ineluctably calls to mind the classic metaphor “hall of mirrors.”

The fact that (SPOILER) we never see the real Maltese Falcon, or even know if such a thing actually exists, or is just a myth, a mirage that this collection of liars, killers, and thieves is chasing.

An answer to the question “Is there honor among thieves?” Answer: No.

Another SPOILER warning. In the final scene the major (surviving) participants are sitting around in a room coldly discussing which of them the others will accuse of the unresolved murder, so the rest of them can walk free. Our “hero” is in on this; and though he’s not the killer, he obviously doesn’t care much whether the true killer is the one who goes up for murder. In the end, it’s the true killer who gets accused to satisfy the cops, but this is only because it’s the most convenient solution for everyone else, not because it’s true.

It’s a pit of vipers, among whom our hero is merely the least objectionable viper. Although he makes this intriguing statement: “Don’t be too sure I’m as crooked as I’m supposed to be. That kind of reputation might be good business – bringing in high-priced jobs and making it easier to deal with the enemy.” But of course we don’t know if we can trust this, either.

All this sounds like I’m coming away from the novel with a main reaction of moral disapproval. But that’s not the case. Hammett himself plainly doesn’t approve of most of this – except for the hero’s admirable ability to avoid being conned by professional con men and women – he merely shows it to us. And so the main reaction this reader has is not “That’s appalling!” – though it is appalling – but, “Wow, what an astounding portrait of a certain set of people!” They’re horrible people, yes, but they’re horridly fascinating horrible people.

The first review of The War of the First Day!

Five stars from Marian Thorpe!
The War of the First Day, by Thomas Fleet: A Review

Some excerpts:

[A] rollicking, fast-paced adult fantasy novel… There are a lot of twists and turns…

[The heroine,] caught up in a complex web of betrayal… must embrace her own magical powers and make decisions to act independently, risking not only her own life but potentially much, much more.

This is a world of political rivalries, where characters jostle for power and will go to any length to obtain it: it just happens to be one where magic is the chief weapon in use.

The ending of the story, without giving it away, was… a surprise, and one that leaves the reader thinking.

The writing is highly competent, active narration occasionally interspersed with descriptions of precise beauty.

The Republic of Thieves, by Scott Lynch

In case you missed it, this is the third volume in a fantasy series. It started with The Lies of Locke Lamora, which deservedly got good reviews. While the next two haven’t been quite as good, that is no insult, because the bar set by the first one was pretty high. They’re all worthwhile.
Some notes on Republic:
● The double meaning of the title – every reviewer misses it, for some reason. In the flashback/backstory/whatever scenes they’re doing a play called The Republic of Thieves; in the “present” scenes they’re trying to steal an election. Get it? “Republic of Thieves”? Hello? Is this thing on? Can you guys hear me in the back? Lynch must feel frustrated that everyone seems to have missed this.
Speaking of missing things…
● How did Lynch miss the Memento-like possibilities of the alternating time sequences? That is, things could be seen one way in the “present” then seen in another way in the light of a subsequent revelation about the past. To make up a random example: Suppose that in the “present” in Karthain Locke says to Sabetha, “Your talk is strong but your action is weak.” Then suppose in the next scene in the past Sabetha says to Locke, “Your talk is strong but your action is weak.” This would re-frame Locke’s “present” statement to Sabetha as not just a random remark, but a throwing back in her face of a remark she’d made to him in the past. Seriously, how did Lynch miss this? I actually just assumed this would happen when “present” Sabetha asks Locke to kiss her in the way that she used to like (nibbles at her neck). I kept waiting for him to discover that she liked being kissed that way in the past sequences – Would he discover it by accident? By deliberate experimentation? Because he’d overheard another woman saying she liked being kissed that way? – but it never happened.
● Why is Locke such a damned wuss about Sabetha? If you want to make a pass at a chick, just make a pass. Don’t make a federal case out of it. (If you think you need advice on how to do it – you actually don’t, but if it makes you feel better – here is something I wrote for women on seducing men; much of the advice is reversible.)
● Miscellaneous points about this series:
– A good setting. A lot of the scenery was built by no-one-knows-who. They’re basically (for all anyone knows) a non-human species that departed the world a long time ago, leaving behind only buildings made of an unscratchable glass that humans can’t replicate. Lynch doesn’t succumb to the trap of “simulating the tectonic plate movements of your fictional planet several billion years before the story begins,” as he puts it. He just gets going with the story.
– The sheer craziness of it all, the sheer over-the-top-ness, is great. At one point (in the first book), a kid serving as a lookout for his fellow con men has to distract the cops so his friends can get away. Not knowing what else to do, he simply jumps out of the third-story window he’s perched in, into the middle of the street. It works, though he almost kills himself. The entire novel is like this.
– Lynch knows how to show you a bad guy. The damned arrogance of the Bondsmages will set your blood boiling. The attitude is, “We have magic and might makes right, therefore we have the right to do whatever we want to people who don’t have magic.” And they’re deliberately rude about it; they unnecessarily add insult to injury as they kill. I really hope that by the end of the series they’ll all be dead. Republic gives us encouraging signs in this regard.
– Keeping you guessing. Lynch has a willingness to whack major characters that surpasses even Joss Whedon’s. Be warned: it’s not always fun.
– Stylistic tic: The italics in dialogue. Lynch changed his mind about this later, thinking it was excessive, but I always thought it was just part of the Scott Lynch style. I don’t have the books in front of me, so to make up another random example:

Where most authors would write,

“If you’re going to pick pockets while you’re drunk, at least don’t choose a cop’s pocket!”

Lynch would write,

“If you’re going to pick pockets while you’re drunk, at least don’t choose a cop’s pocket!”

Actually, he’d write,

“If you’re going to pick pockets while you’re drunk, you lamentable fuck-brain, at least don’t choose a cop’s pocket! If you do that ever again, you leprous sore on a witch’s tit, I’ll sodomize you with a splintery mast from one of the Duke’s warships!”

Which reminds me, if you have an aversion to rough language, you probably shouldn’t even look in the general direction of any book by Sco – No, don’t look! Your eyes! Wash your eyes with lye, quick!

Fun stuff.

The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making

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.