A New Kind of Epic Fantasy: Cassie-la Explores “The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland” by Catherynne M. Valente

The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There by Catherynne M. Valente (Advanced Reader Copy)
Release Date: October 2, 2012
Genre: Fiction, fairy tale, fantasy, children’s literature, epic fantasy because I say so
Rating: 4.2 out of 5 stars

Summary: September once again returns to Fairyland, but this time it is much different than she remembers. Forced to fight her own shadow, the Hollow Queen who has been stealing the shadows into Fairyland-Below, September is tasked with saving magic and the inhabitants of Fairyland-Above before it is too late. Starring some familiar yet shadowy faces, this sequel to The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making is another grandiose fantasy from the talented Catherynne M. Valente.

Generally, the epic fantasy moniker is reserved for the likes of Lord of the Rings (HAPPY TOLKIEN WEEK! btw) and A Song of Ice and Fire– that is series with orcs and death and magical objects. But I would like to argue for The Girl Who… series, or the Fairyland series so as not to confuse it with the Swedish computer hacker books, as an epic fantasy in its own right. It’s a modern fairytale with lush prose, an enormous cast of characters, impossible magic, and even a dragon or two. Valente gives it all the trappings of a fantasy- including prophecies- and despite my dislike of the word I would definitely refer to it as “epic”. I rest my very shoddy, not so well thought out case.

Since the first book in the series was my hands-down favorite book of 2011 (you can read that review here) even beating out the amazing Night Circus, this book had big shoes to fill. It didn’t quite meet my much raised expectations, but it came pretty close. It wasn’t perfect in every way The Girl Who Circumnavigated was, but the fabulous  writing, intriguing new characters and the highbrow parody was more than enough to get me past that. If only my brain wouldn’t rate or judge things based on other things!

The book opens once again with September, who rather than being thrust immediately into Fairyland is instead given a one year reprieve and some back story in the real world. We learn that the plot of the book occurs during World War II, her father is a soldier, her mother is concerned about food rations and September is a young girl expected to be festooned in lace and curls. Such is the time period I suppose. Thankfully, she finds a way back to a much changed Fairyland where two to three years have passed since her last visit. Damn fairytale time! How does anyone pass between worlds when time moves so differently?

When September returns it is to a landscape not just changed because she is older and seeing the place differently (although that’s certainly the implied metaphor) but also because her literal shadow has taken over and changed things for the worse. She enters Fairyland into a forest made of glass in a place called Moonkin Hill where magic is rationed much like food and the shadowless inhabitants are saddened by their changed lives. This of course mirrors September’s own world where food is rationed and people are changed by war. In contrast, things are very different in Fairyland-Below, which we’ll get into in the next paragraph. Because that’s how paragraphs work.

Suffice it to say, the reign of September’s shadow Halloween the Hollow Queen has taken a toll on the Fairyland inhabitants. Stealing shadows to take them down to Fairyland-Below is draining Fairyland-Above of its magic (hence the magic ration slips). She is aided by the Alleyman, a mysterious figure feared by all who steals your shadow from below (or through the ceiling of Fairyland-Below) depending on how you look at it. These shadows have vastly different personalities once freed from their partners, representing the parts of ourselves that we keep hidden. We are the facade, our shadows are our real selves that we suppress. Seriously, this is a children’s book series.

The main themes of the novel are all about duality and our hidden selves, explored through the shadows (see above). Those in Fairyland are losing the magic that holds their world together because of the loss of their shadows while the inhabitants of Fairyland-Below are finally experiencing a world of freedom. No longer are they shackled to their fleshy counterparts, forced to do what they do, sleep when they sleep, dance when they dance, but are allowed to make their own choices and be their own selves. However, while the shadows thrive without their owners, their owners cannot survive without them. Is it right to take the shadows’ new life away? Should our baser selves be held in check or offered freedom? It’s a horrible and heartbreaking catch-22 of massive proportions that September must find a solution to. It’s so hard being a thirteen year old sometimes. Especially in Fairyland.

Despite the changes in setting, Valente keeps the same writing style and elements of fantasy present in the series. September visits the Upside-Down, where roots and vegetables grow up from the ground and Asphodel, where sleighs run up and down colorful staircases like escalators. She meets the Vicereine of Coffee, Pharaoh of Beer, Dauphin of Gin, Chocolate Infanta, Baron of Port, and Duke of Teatime who are all physical embodiments of their beverages. And she learns about Myrrh, the Sleeping Prince and supposed King of the Underneath who, “Dreams at the bottom of the world, in an unopenable box in an unbreakable bower”. Valente kills me with her amazingly tangible writing.

There is also the same level of wit and parody to lighten the sadder elements of the narrative. In the Goblin Market for example the Goblin Glasswort Groof recites line from the famous poem “Goblin Market” (obviously) and teaches us all about the Goblin Stock Market. Unlike our stock market which trades in money, goblins trade in Breath, Tears, Voices, Wishes and Hours. They used to trade in firstborns, but they lost value when the market was flooded with them. See? Funny. You can trade your children in for cash!

Then of course there is the very amusing, very dry British humor (although Valente is not English) of Questing Physicks which is, you guessed it, all about quests. Of course September is on a quest to rejoin the Fairylands (take that epic fantasy theory) so we get to hear all about the science behind journeys and questing. Such as how labyrinths and minotaur always go together. Also present in quests are the E.K.T. field (the Everyone Knows That field) and the Endgame Object, in this case Myrrh, a Type W (Type Wonderful) who comes complete with a Theseus-type narrative. It’s all very scientific.

THE GOOD:
-Same lush writing and magical fantasy as first book
-Wonderful and inventive new characters
-Plenty of intelligent parody (very Discworld)
-Loved the exploration of hidden selves and facades through shadows

THE BAD:
-Not as heartbreakingly beautiful as the original

Valente left this novel (much like the first one) open to a sequel but I have yet to find any information on whether or not this will in fact be a trilogy. Although I really hope it is one. ::crosses fingers:: To stave off the waiting between this book’s official publication and a possible third novel (please be a trilogy and not a damn quartet!) I highly recommend the lovely AND FREE prequel short story: “The Girl Who Ruled Fairyland – For a Little While“. Learn more about Magic and Physicks through the doomed Queen Mallow. You know you want to.

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5 thoughts on “A New Kind of Epic Fantasy: Cassie-la Explores “The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland” by Catherynne M. Valente

  1. I just finished read this yesterday, and it was incredible. My review should be up by the end of the week, and I completely agree with you – loved the parody, the allegory, how Fairyland changes because she’s a little bit older, her interactions with her shadow, and that twist at the end (creature in the feathered hat), just WOW. I think I liked this one better than the first book! I’ll be working with some of the bookstores that Cat Valente is touring at next month, I’d love it if you’d help me out by blurbing your review here: http://bookstorebloggerconxn.com/

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