The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There is the more-than-worthy follow-up to Catherynne Valente’s The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making. It continues the story of September, returning her to Fairyland, or more precisely, to underneath it, where she once again adventures amongst strange and wonderful people and places.
September’s story opens up back in Nebraska, but along with September, we’re quickly whisked out of our dull, mundane world of school and mean girls and back to the world of Fairyland. But Fairyland has changed since September was last there, and not for the better. Worse, the change seems to be due to something September herself did on her first visit there. And as September is “quite a practical child,” she knows that “You must always clean up your own messes.” And so it isn’t long — a quick little stop in a forest of glass and a trip to the Sybil — before she is climbing down the trapdoor into Fairyland-Below to set things right.
There, where the shadows live, she reunites, kind of, with a few of her prior journeying companions. Only “kind of,” though, because what she meets are their shadows rather than themselves, and shadows are not quite the same. One reason for the difference is explained by the narrator, who as in the first book comments freely throughout the novel, addressing the reader directly:
[September] did not know yet how sometimes people keep parts of themselves hidden and secret, sometimes wicked and unkind parts, but often brave or wild or colorful parts, cunning or powerful or even marvelous, beautiful parts, just locked up away at the bottom of their hearts . . . And all . . . parts they hid away and left in the dark to grow strange mushrooms — and yes, sometimes those wicked and unkind parts too, — end up in their shadow.
That she “did not know yet” informs us that part of this story will be a learning experience for September, making it somewhat of a coming-of-age tale. And the range of all those parts informs us that this will be a story that does not over-simplify that journey. It would have been all too easy (not to mention all too dull) to make shadows simply the darker, worse side of everyone. But not all we hide away is our worst self, and Valente is adult enough to know that, and honest enough to use that, despite this being a story “for children.” This refusal to condescend to younger readers was one of the strengths of The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland and it remains a strength here as well. That’s actually true of all the positive aspects of the first book, which reappear here equally enjoyably, if at times a bit slanted, a bit darker (September is, after all, thirteen now rather than twelve).
With a brand new setting to work with, Valente has a new canvas on which to let her fervent and fertile imagination fly and so along with the shadow-forms of familiar creatures, we get the pleasure of meeting a whole slew of other original creations. The narrator’s wry and at times sorrowfully resigned voice (“Oh September! It is so soon for you to lose your friends to good work and strange loves and high ambitions. The sadness of that is too grown-up for you.”) continues to be a lovely escort. The intertextual and metafictional aspects continue to add layers of playful, self-aware complexity, as when September meets a “Questing Physickist” who teaches her “The First Law of Heroics” and who hopes to “be the one to discover the GUT — the Grand Unified Tale, the one which will bind together all our [quest] Theorems and Laws, leaving out not one Orphan Girl or Youngest Son or Cup of Life and Death. Not one Descent or Ascent, not one Riddle or Puzzle or Trick.” And, as one has grown to expect from Valente’s work, whether it be for adults or children, the language is vivid, lyrical, and rich, an ocean of words to splash around in and float upon. Which means, just as with The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland, The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland almost requires you to read it aloud to your children.
As much as I enjoyed the first book in this set, I did feel, as I mentioned in that review, a little distanced from both story and main character. The form remains episodic in nature here, and while I loved the sheer volume of inventiveness in both novels, I sometimes wished Valente would save some of the great ideas for other times and let us enjoy fewer ones longer. That said, I enjoyed The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland a little better than The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland; it felt a bit tighter and I appreciated the dimmer, more slant-wise trip slightly more. But in any case, both books are highly recommended both for adults and younger readers. And I wouldn’t mind seeing more of Fairyland down the road.