The Glass Town Game: A strange, unsettling and deeply personal project

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The Glass Town Game by Catherynne M. Valente children's fantasy book reviewsThe Glass Town Game by Catherynne M. ValenteThe Glass Town Game by Catherynne M. Valente

Any book by Catherynne M. Valente contains both the unexpected and the unsurprising. You can always anticipate clever wordplay, a sense of whimsy, and prose that just stops short of purple, but in regards to content all bets are off. She can write anything, from a Wild-Western Snow White, to a brand new take on Arabian Nights, to a sci-fi, alt-history space opera mystery.

And in this case, the plot of The Glass Town Game (2017) almost defies description. Four children, who just happen to be Charlotte, Branwell, Emily and Anne Brontë (yes, THOSE Brontës), are being sent away to boarding school when a mysterious train pulls up and whisks them away to Glass Town. Astonishment reigns since this is the imaginary city of their make-believe games, where Napoleon and Wellington are embroiled in a decades-long war, where every figure-of-speech is taken literally (from champagne flutes to patchwork fields), and even death itself doesn’t play by the rules.

Having found themselves in a world that’s based on their own imaginative games, the children attempt to get their bearings and understand the “rules” of their new reality — though the sight of a potion that raises the dead immediately calls to mind their deceased mother and older sisters. If they can get a hold of it, could they restore them to life?

As much as I love Valente’s work, I don’t think The Glass House Game is one of her best. Though each of the Brontë siblings is carefully drawn, from Charlotte’s sense of responsibility as the oldest, to Branwell’s insecurity over his preadolescent masculinity, to Emily’s giddy romanticism and Anne’s youngest-child-syndrome, the story itself is a bit lacking. The plot veers back and forth erratically, and answers are never forthcoming as to what exactly is going on.

A lot of what’s written here made more sense in hindsight, after I discovered that the real-life Brontë children did in fact create an imaginary world known as Glass Town, populated by figures such as Wellington, Napoleon, Scott, and Byron, and Valente clearly did her research when it came to the particulars of their lives. But this only makes the book feel like a vessel for her interest in the subject rather than a story in its own right, and the whole thing would probably mean more to someone familiar who has already read Tales of Glass Town, Angria and Gondal (which I imagine is not many children).

Valente’s work delves into some dark themes, such as the permanency of death and the terrible cost of war, as well as the power of stories and the imaginative force that goes into children’s games. There are plenty of allusions to other works, from Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland to Monty Python, which enrich the text and inspire readers to seek out further readings.

But The Glass Town Game never really “took off” for me, especially not in the way the FAIRYLAND series did. I wonder if it was because Valente was relying on the imaginations of the Brontës instead of her own.

Published in September 2017. Parents’ Choice Gold Award Winner. A Publishers Weekly Best Middle Grade Book of 2017. Charlotte and Emily must enter a fantasy world that they invented in order to rescue their siblings in this adventurous and fiercely intelligent novel from the New York Times bestselling author of The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making. Inside a small Yorkshire parsonage, Charlotte, Branwell, Emily, and Anne Brontë have invented a game called Glass Town, where their toy soldiers fight Napoleon and no one dies. This make-believe land helps the four escape from a harsh reality: Charlotte and Emily are being sent away to a dangerous boarding school, a school they might not return from. But on this Beastliest Day, the day Anne and Branwell walk their sisters to the train station, something incredible happens: the train whisks them all away to a real Glass Town, and the children trade the moors for a wonderland all their own. This is their Glass Town, exactly like they envisioned it…almost. They certainly never gave Napoleon a fire-breathing porcelain rooster instead of a horse. And their soldiers can die; wars are fought over the potion that raises the dead, a potion Anne would very much like to bring back to England. But when Anne and Branwell are kidnapped, Charlotte and Emily must find a way to save their siblings. Can two English girls stand against Napoleon’s armies, especially now that he has a new weapon from the real world? And if he escapes Glass Town, will England ever be safe again? Together the Brontë siblings must battle with a world of their own creation if they are to make it back to England alive in this magical celebration of authorship, creativity, and classic literature from award-winning author Catherynne M. Valente.

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REBECCA FISHER, with us since January 2008, earned a Masters degree in literature at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand. Her thesis included a comparison of how C.S. Lewis and Philip Pullman each use the idea of mankind’s Fall from Grace to structure the worldviews presented in their fantasy series. Rebecca is a firm believer that fantasy books written for children can be just as meaningful, well-written and enjoyable as those for adults, and in some cases, even more so. Rebecca lives in New Zealand. She is the winner of the 2015 Sir Julius Vogel Award for Best SFF Fan Writer.

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One comment

  1. Sounds like I’d better do some pre-reading and research before I get into this one. Thanks for the heads-up (and great review), Rebecca!

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