I have a crippling bias against fantasy fiction. Whenever I have attempted to read anything of the genre, I am stymied by the realities that a) I don't seem to enjoy any fiction, even the novels by I-should-love-her Ellis Peters, that is set in any pre-industrial society, and b) fantasy authors get lost in the creation of piles and piles of utterly arbitrary rules and laws to govern their fantasy world. So I really shouldn't have enjoyed Catherynne M. Valente's - and wow at the spelling of that pen name - novel for young adults, one with the quite remarkable title of The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, at all. As it concerns itself with a young girl in a fairy kingdom who resolves to have words with the land's new marquess about all of the utterly arbitrary rules and laws that are being instituted, it just doesn't seem like it's the book for me.
And yet, drawn in by curiosity over the book's remarkable and silly name, I found this much less tedious or twee than I feared. The heroine, a girl from wartime Nebraska named September who is cut from the same cloth as Dorothy or Alice, suffers from the genre trap of being just a little too clever for the situations and the traps of her weird world. But she's just engaging enough to make readers really worry about whether she'll make it to the story's end in one piece. Early on, she sacrifices her shadow, a fate I really don't recall any protagonist that I've ever met suffering before, and I found myself inordinately troubled.
It's not without its flaws. The entire first chapter was lost upon me. I have read very little from the genre and enjoyed almost none of it to speak of, and the entire business of the Green Wind visiting September to take her on a magic carpet ride and tell her rules feels like it is luxuriating in every bad and unfair stereotype of the form. Even when September arrives and the book takes the postmodern detour through immigration, it's to deliver more and more arbitrary rules, the sort which will probably have the effect of spoiling the promise of all that promised chocolate at the climax on account of somebody pilfering fizzy lifting drinks several chapters previously. In short, despite the vivid depiction of the world and characters, it's business as usual for the trope and an agonizing expectation-settling disappointment for a good thirty pages before things get weird in the fairyland and September gets the chance to shine.
Interestingly, as the narrative continues, the sense of whimsy is overwhelmed by senses of loss and purpose. It becomes, magically, a book about consequences. September starts to see how her actions affect the world, and the marquess, already knowing this, rationalizes the consequences of her cruelty in terms of the ends justifying the means, when even the ends are questionable. The acceleration from playful world-building into tough reality is gradual enough that it's easy to miss where it's going. It's also easy to miss where it begins, but I'll peg it on a fabulous scene where September, watching a newsreel in a fairyland theater, is confronted by the shocking presence of the subject of the newsreel suddenly speaking as though a live transmission. It's a playful novel, but one that's grown-up enough to know when it's time to put away the toys and think seriously about what to do next. Recommended.