My rating: 5 of 5 stars
In the last few years the market for fantasy/fairytale novels has, it’s fair to say, become pretty saturated. There’s the odd clever twist or the smart re-working of an established theme, but too often the author strays back to the realms of predictability, or reins their heroine in just when things get exciting. Then again, every so often, more rarely than we’d like, a book comes along that doesn’t just explode stereotypes, it’s so startlingly original that you’d think it sprung, fully formed, into being. I’m pleased to say that The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making (or The Girl Who, as it will be known for the rest of this review) is most definitely of the latter variety.
It’s often a good sign when you read a book and have to check the blurb to see whether it’s actually aimed at children or not. The Girl Who *is* a book for children (though I’d say that slightly older kids/YA will get the most out of it) but the story is so rich, the characters so fully formed and the language and telling so rich and evocative that an adult certainly won’t feel shortchanged by reading it.
September, ‘the girl who’ of the title, is a fantastic role model who doesn’t allow herself to be spirited away so much as weighing up the possibility and making the decision herself. She’s one of the most capable heroines I have ever met in print – she never shrinks away from danger or cowers pathetically behind the nearest male character. In fact, I think for September alone, this book should be required reading for all children, but especially girls, to counteract all the syrupy sweet Disney Princess subservience they see everywhere else.
As for the setting- well, I don’t want to give too much away as it’s a real experience. Suffice to say that when you read the story, yes it’s cliched but you will feel like you’re actually in it, walking along with September and her friends across the landscape of Fairyland. It’s so alien and yet so real, which I think speaks volumes about just how well Catherynne M. Valente manages to pack truly evocative descriptions into limited space. There are no wasted words here – every single one has a purpose as they work towards building the world, its sights, sounds and smells. The other point worth noting here, as it’s somewhat unusual in a lot of fantastical books, is that Valente builds a very realistic sense of time into the story – if the characters need to walk somewhere, it takes a while to get there, no “oh we strolled along for a day and covered 500 miles” nonsense magic here.
The plot chugs along at a good pace – not too fast and not too slow and I particularly liked the little one-sentence synopses at the beginning of each chapter. There are tantalising hints of subplots, but the main plot takes centre stage, and there are plenty of twists and turns to keep you turning to the next page before building up into a cracking finale.
Now, I’ve said this work is a complete original, and I stand by that. You can see little glimpses here and there of the influences behind the book – The Wizard of Oz, possibly Mirrormask or Coraline and Alice in Wonderland to name a few. But, don’t let this put you off. The Girl Who is in no way a shallow derivative of these – instead it tips a velvety, ostrich feather adorned dandy top hat at them as it weaves a magic of its own.
You’ll like The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making if:
– You love fun, sparky original storytelling
– You’re searching for smart, truly independent female leads who don’t check their morals at the front door
– You wouldn’t say no to a bit of whimsy in your stories
– You like the option to return to the world in later books
You won’t like The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making if:
– You have no sense of humour
– You want a carbon copy ‘nice princess behaves until a prince rescues her’ tale
– You think that reading gritty realism makes you innately more grown up.
– Let’s face it, if you got this far down and are still reading then you almost certainly will like it, so stop wasting time reading this and go get a copy! Now!