Saturday, February 02, 2013

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

Catherynne M. Valente's first book for teens, The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, came about almost by accident, sparked by Valente's adult novels, financial need, and a swell of fan support. Circumnavigated was also written in public, 19th-century-style, and was inevitably episodic because of that.

But the resulting product won the Andre Norton award for 2010, and (as far as I can tell) has been by far her bestselling book to date, so Valente returned to September and to Fairyland with a second novel, The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There, written and published all at once in physical form, like most books. Fell Beneath has a clearer arc than Circumnavigated, but it's still a novel of episodes -- Valente has a joy in discovery and storytelling, and sends her heroine through another series of strange situations and characters in the tradition of Alice in Wonderland and a thousand other books of wonders.

This time, the title doesn't really refer to September herself -- or not necessarily so. When September returns to Fairyland, after a year away and countless wishes to go back, she finds that her shadow, so roughly taken from her in the first book, has become Halloween, the Queen of Fairyland-Below -- the dark image of regular Fairyland, as Fairyland is of our world (and, as Valente implies, so on and so on). Halloween has conjured a creature, the Alleyman, to steal the shadows of Fairyland's inhabitants to bolster her own kingdom's population and magic and energy and power, making her revels ever bigger and fancier and wilder.

It's a situation that can't go on -- Fairyland-Below's depredation will soon deracinate Fairyland so much that the latter will become just another bland district of the real world -- and Fairyland-Below, no matter what Halloween thinks, can't survive after that for very long itself. Clearly, someone needs to fix things -- some smart, determined girl, a little older and wiser than last time, and, most importantly, having grown up just enough that she is no longer quite heartless, as children are. [1]

So September goes beneath, to find and confront her shadow-self and to make things right again. Along the way, she is joined by the shadows of two of her old compatriots from the first book -- and she welcomes them as anyone welcomes seeing old friends in a dangerous new place. But these shadows are not her old friends -- or, to be more precise, are not exactly her old friends, but the hidden and unexpressed parts of them set free -- and Halloween doesn't want to become September's shadow again, and the problems of Fairyland-Below will not be solved that easily. September must undertake a new quest, to go to the bottom of the bottom of the world beneath to find a mythical sleeping prince and wake him up.

Valente's vision of Fairy is focused on women -- quietly, in a way that girls might not notice but some boys and older readers will, used to fairy worlds populated primarily by male creatures -- and on the lives and choices of women. Valente's narrative voice is not dismissive of Halloween's desires and concerns; it knows that being someone else's shadow forever is nothing to look forward to. So there's a tension in September's quest -- it needs to be done; this land needs to be saved -- to do with the cost of the saving and the free choices of the people being saved. What do the shadows want -- what does the sleeping prince want? Will they act out the roles of the old story, or can they be what they really want to be -- the way September could be free in Fairyland and Halloween could create a realm of shadows to live and rule and revel in? What kind of Fairyland will September create or save?

So Fell Beneath is not deep and thoughtful and fraught with moral consequences for a young-readers novel; it's deep and thoughtful and fraught with moral consequences because it's a young-readers novel; it's a story about what is right and possible and true for readers who are dealing with that day by day themselves. And it's at least as deep and sharp-eyed as Circumnavigated is, with an added sense of growing up and taken on responsibilities that will not go away, no matter how much one wants to run away to Fairyland. Fell Beneath is a great fantasy novel, rich and witty and full of wonders, told by a master storyteller with some important things to say.

[1] Valente has a sharp-eyed take on that old saw -- I know it from Peter Pan, where Barrie used it to broadly similar ends -- that children are free and happy and heartless, mixing it into an implicit theory of adolescence that she allows to bubble up in the narrative voice several times in Fell Beneath. Children are indeed heartless, but September is beginning to become a young woman, and so she has a heart -- a not-entirely-formed, rough, raw thing, but one that has started to beat and feel and affect her actions. The plot of Fell Beneath could not happen without that heart, and without September having grown up that much -- the whole book is, along with so much else, a quiet rebuke there to the Problem of Susan.

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