Tuesday, January 11, 2022

The Girl Who Soared Over Fairyland by Catherynne Valente


Source of book: Audiobook from the library, but we also own this.


This book is the third in Catherynne Valente’s “Fairyland” series, which is some of the most bizarre and unusual children’s fantasy ever. I previously wrote about The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland and The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland, as well as Valente’s hilarious “Douglas Adams meets Eurovision” science fiction book, Space Opera


The Girl Who Soared Over Fairyland brings the return of September, now age 14 and filled with a good bit of angst, eager to again escape her difficult home life and return to Fairyland. This time, she never makes it to the planet itself, but instead is trapped in space and on the moon, which is experiencing violent moonquakes that are attributed to a vindictive moon yeti. 


Like the previous books, this one is filled with the unexpected, the bizarre, the inexplicable, and the “what on earth was THAT?” Valente seems to have a bottomless imagination for strange things, combined with an uncanny ability to sneak philosophical and ethical ideas into her daft stories before you realize she did so. 


I think of the three, this one was the hardest to follow, although part of that was the fact that we split it over several trips, so we didn’t have the continuity that would have helped. I also think, though, that she made things a bit more dense in this book than the previous. That isn’t necessarily bad, but as the driver for all of these trips, I found that if I had to divert my full attention to the road, I missed stuff. (Since we own the book, I went back and checked a few things to make sure I knew what was going on at the end.) 


All three books have had a lot about emotions and growing up and other topics relevant to both children and adults. However, with this book, Valente moves solidly into the problem noted in much fairy literature of the past: when you grow up, you leave Fairyland for good. For September, this is horrifying - and even more so, when she wonders if her life is predetermined to the point where she lacks control over her destiny. As a 14 year old, this is, yep, pretty significant. I hated my Junior High years, so a lot of this really resonated with me. (Of course, mine were followed by our family’s descent into Authoritarian Fundamentalism, so I have baggage September doesn’t, while she has her own issues, particularly her veteran father’s PTSD.) I am curious how much this meant to my two younger kids, age 11 and 13, who are also at that “transitioning to adulthood” stage. 


One thing that I liked about this book - and I assume many others will as well - is that we got a lot more of Saturday and A-through-L, the delightful companions that September had from the first book. In the second book, they didn’t appear until fairly far through, which was a bit disappointing. Who wouldn’t like the thoughtful Marid and the exuberant Wyverary, after all? Also fun in this book is that September’s old Model A comes to life as Aroostook. 


This also becomes part of a philosophical question. In Fairyland, King Charlie Crunchcrab (remember him from the first book?) has decreed that “tools have rights.” As we come to find out, this is because the Fairies have treated each other as mere tools for so long that many of them have become tools. That Aroostook now becomes a person causes September (and us) to reevaluate both how we view objects, and how we tend toward objectification all too easily. 


There are a lot of other memorable characters in this book. Abecedaria, the Periwig (and librarian), Spoke, the Taxicrab, and Almanack, the giant welk whose body becomes an entire city. There are a lot more, of course. As with the other books, the first few pages are a “character list,” with dozens of characters. 


I will also note that, as with every one of these books, there is a “villain,” who turns out to be a heck of a lot more complex than expected. In the first, this was the Marchioness, who morphed from a benevolent queen into a tyrant when she was forced to return to her real life, where she was an abused child. In the second, the villain is Halloween, September’s severed shadow, who really just wants her father back and okay again. In this one, there is Ciderskin, the great Yeti, who is seriously misunderstood - and blamed for things that he isn’t actually doing. I don’t want to spoil the ending, so I won’t, but any reader of the series already knows that nothing is what it seems at first. 


This, of course, is one reason why I like the books. They bring a complexity that is often missing in fantasy books. I also like that Valente is utterly unafraid of “negative” emotions. Her characters don’t have to always be good, or feel good, or express positivity. I think it is important for kids to learn this. Our society in general tends to put a lot of emphasis on keeping up the illusion of positivity, and I think this has been unhealthy. 


I also appreciate that Valente refuses to talk down to her readers. This has caused some to question if these books are even meant for children. I think they are, although my kids are used to books that are supposedly “over their heads” - we have always read books that weren’t even specifically for kids. The best writers, of course, assume (correctly) that children can understand complex ethical issues, and appreciate existential questions. (Honestly, in my experience, children are better at this than older adults on average, in part because they haven’t ossified their thinking due to a tribal attachment to ideology. Perhaps this is why Christ talked about the Kingdom of God belonging to the little children.) 


There really is nothing quite like these books, even their obvious predecessor, Lewis Carroll’s “Alice” books. Both adults and the right sort of kids will enjoy them. 


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