Wednesday, August 19, 2020

The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland by Catherynne Valente

Source of book: Audiobook from the library


It is hard to believe that it has been eight years since I first read The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland as part of a brief book club. My older kids read at least the first three books back then, but I never went beyond the first one. Then, two years ago, I borrowed the audiobook for one of our road trips, so that my youngest (who missed out the first time) would get a chance to experience it. She enjoyed it, so I put the others on our list. 


The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland is the second book in the series. 


Like the first book, this one is kind of a twisted version of fairy legends, perhaps similar to the Tim Burton view, a bit like Lewis Carroll, with the absurdity of imagination you see in Douglas Adams, but also the philosophical ideas expected in, say, Terry Pratchett. They are full of whimsy for the kids - although rather dark and scary in places - and packed with “Easter Eggs” for the adults. I find them rather enjoyable, myself, but mileage appears to vary. 


This book continues the adventures of September, a girl whose father is off fighting in World War Two, and whose mother is a “Rosie the Riveter.” Having saved Fairyland from the Marquess while losing her shadow, she has returned to real life, but struggles to adapt. She knows she will return, but doesn’t know when. 


She eventually does, but finds Fairyland again in distress, this time because everyone is losing their shadows - and their magic. The problem appears to stem from September’s shadow, who is now ruling “Fairyland Below” as Queen Halloween. This is a distressing state of affairs, which September must try to set right. 


September manages (after some adventures) to get down below, and finds herself reunited with her friends Saturday and Ell the wyverary. Well, not exactly them, but their shadows, which are...a bit different. 


In Valente’s vision, “shadows” are not just literal shadows, but a person’s other side. In some ways, it is their dark side, but I think a more accurate description would be that the shadow is a person’s id - it is their more primitive and unfiltered side. Thus, Saturday isn’t the shy boy he usually is, but an aggressive and assertive sort, as he would deep down like to be. 


Even more to the point, Halloween is September’s id, who always wants to have her way, even when that way hurts others. This version of her isn’t evil - she desires the end to her deepest pain: her absent and endangered father. Her shadow-stealing all traces back to the desire to have those she loves with her and safe. 


Ana Juan's illustrations are delightful

There are some truly outstanding scenes in this book, particularly the one in the library with Avogadra, the Questing Monk, who explains the classification system for plots. Here is just a bit of it:


“Already we know that Prince Myrrh is an Endgame Object Type W—that’s Wonderful, since we have yet to see if he will be any Use in governing. He sleeps suspended in a Theseus-type narrative matrix; however, he does seem to have some gravitational pull on events, which is unusual for a T-Type. After all, we still remember him even after all these years. It’s far easier to forget something than to remember it. Remembering takes all kinds of magic. No one knows who he is or what he looks like or where to find him, and yet we all know of him. We all know he sleeps in an unopenable box on an unbreakable bower. That’s a frightfully strong E.K.T. Field for one little creature!”

“What’s an E.K.T. Field?”

Avogadra grinned. “Whilst on an expedition to prove the Rule of Three, my honored colleague Black Fermat hypothesized that certain Quest Objects cast a field around them, like a magnet or a planet—an Everyone Knows That Field. This is how they draw in unsuspecting Heroes. When an E.K.T. Field is in effect, everyone within its power will know a good deal about the Object, even if they can’t say where they heard about it or why it’s so deathly important to remember all that dusty old nonsense. They’ll chat about it with any passing stranger like it’s sizzling local gossip.”


There are so many Easter Eggs in this section for anyone who knows mythology or finds cookie-cutter plots annoying. Kids may not get it, but adults will. 


I also enjoyed the mad scientist, who invents outlandish contraptions that then have to discover their purpose. Including the “squidhole,” which is a kind of wormhole type portal, but smaller and easier to manage without quantum physics. 


There is also a good play on the labyrinth myth - which turns out to be the entire quest in a way. 


This book is a bit different from the first one in a couple of ways. First, September is a bit older, so she thinks more like a teenager than a child. As Valente notes in the first book, children are “heartless.” Now, September is growing a heart, which means she has to be more nuanced in her actions toward others. The moral complexities are now apparent to her. In that sense, the book itself is more ambiguous. The shadows are essentially people, and their desire for freedom must somehow be reconciled to the need for shadows and their persons to be reunited to make whole beings again. 


Likewise, the book lacks a true villain. Halloween is September, or at least a side of her, so she can’t be destroyed. Rather, she has to be somehow healed or made whole. We also see the return of the Marquess, who, at the end of the last book, was revealed to be a girl from an abusive family who dragged herself back to Fairyland, and determined to punish it for making her return to her horrible real life. Rather than go back again, she puts herself in a deep sleep. But her shadow is discovered by September, and the two have to team up. 


This is a rather interesting development. In many ways, the Marquess (aka Queen Mallow, aka Maud) is a straight-up villain in the first book. Except that when we discover her true identity, she becomes much more complex and understandable. Some reviewers have complained that the second book undermines the character development of the Marquess from the first book, but I disagree. The second book continues the process. The Marquess was never pure evil, but rather a deeply hurt person acting out in pain and despair. It seems natural that, given time, we would come to understand her - and she would have a chance at redemption. 


I think that the paradox here is that the Fairyland books are all about quests and fantasy, but they undermine the usual tropes. This bothers some who expect the clear good/evil dichotomy of fairy tales and fantasy. Valente eschews these, instead choosing to populate her world with characters of the same shades of grey we find in the real world, where we have very few true villains, particularly in our everyday lives. Fairyland isn’t a video game, where you slash and kill anything that looks dark or ugly. Rather, people (and I use that term to include all the sentient creatures in the books) are also puzzles to be solved, just like unopenable boxes and labyrinths. And that is a very grown-up quest, come to think of it. 


While the author narrated the first audiobook, this one was narrated by Valente’s friend, folk singer S. J. Tucker, who apparently has branched out into audiobooks. She did a fine enough job - I have no complaints. The one peculiar difference is that Valente pronounces the wyvern/library hybrid that Ell is with a short “i” while Tucker uses the long “i,” which is how I said it in my head. Who knows? Newly invented imaginary creatures lack standardized pronunciation, I suppose. 

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