Catherynne M. Valente's The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making is the book that gets my vote for Best Title of the Year. But a clever title does not always make a clever book. In this case though the contents live up to the package. It is a beautifully written and clever story. It is pretty near impossible to discuss this book without bringing Alice into the mix, and I have made it no secret here that I'm not the biggest fan of Wonderland (or the Victorian fantasy in general). This isn't Victorian fantasy however, it is modern fantasy with Victorian elements. Neil Gaiman stated it perfectly in his blurb for the book (an endorsement enough in itself, no need to read my review): "A glorious balancing act between modernism and the Victorian fairy tale, done with heart and wisdom." That exactly.
Synopsis (from Goodreads):
Twelve-year-old September lives in Omaha, and used to have an ordinary life, until her father went to war and her mother went to work. One day, September is met at her kitchen window by a Green Wind (taking the form of a gentleman in a green jacket), who invites her on an adventure, implying that her help is needed in Fairyland. The new Marquess is unpredictable and fickle, and also not much older than September. Only September can retrieve a talisman the Marquess wants from the enchanted woods, and if she doesn’t . . . then the Marquess will make life impossible for the inhabitants of Fairyland. September is already making new friends, including a book-loving Wyvern and a mysterious boy named Saturday.
September is a reader and as such knows all about Fairyland and what is expected in such stories, so when asked to go on an adventure she jumps at the chance. Except it turns out she doesn't know so much, and neither does the reader, because Valente took most of the rules and tossed them out the window. Which is wonderful. This is a story most people will think has been done time and again, but at the same time it is original. September is a different sort of visitor to Fairyland. People keep telling her she is Ravished. What that means is part of the mystery, one of the things September must discover. The villain is not at all typical either and is, in so many ways, utterly fascinating. What Valente did there made it worth reading the book for that alone.
Like Wonderland, there are moments in Fairyland that are surreal. However, the level of absurdity is not quite as high. Yes, there are talking inanimate objects, curious meetings, magic that makes no sense, the language is similar. Yet there is a cohesive story here and it is told with a fair amount of cynicism.
I was a bit frustrated at how hurried the end was, after all we had circumnavigated all of Fairyland to get there, but Valente managed to make me accept it with the way she concluded the story: "All stories must end so, with the next tale winking out of the corners of the last pages, promising more, promising moonlight and dancing and revels, if only you will come back when spring comes again."
Is this a Middle Grade novel or a Young Adult novel? I have seen this debated several places. Are younger readers going to appreciate the cynical tone? Are teen readers going to pick up a book where the main character is 12 and still very much a child? My library has it shelved in the Teen section. I don't know that this is a book that is suited for any specific age group. It is a book that is suited for a specific group of people be they MG, YA, or not so YA. That group consists of those who love language and the written word. If you are such a person I recommend you pick this one up.