Once you’ve been to a world filled with magic, what happens next?
September first visited Fairyland in The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making. Young, carefree and heartless: her adventures there exposed to her wonders and dangers; she formed new friendships with barely a thought for home. Now September is back in Omaha, Nebraska, at the end of a very long, non-Fairyland year. It’s been tough; though she has a secret she carries “with her like a pair of rich gloves, which, when she was cold, she could take out and slip on to remember the warmth of days gone by,” she is more ostracized than ever by her classmates. Even worse: her shadow is still missing, left in Fairyland, and her father remains away at war in France. Like most storybook heroines returned to the real world, she has hopes of returning to a land of magic: “being quite a practical child, she had become very interested in mythology since her exploits on the other side of the world, studying up on the ways of fairies and old gods and hereditary monarchs and other magical folk.” (See what Valente does there? Clever, clever!)
But September is under a very large misconception about magical journeys. She assumes that since the dictatorial Marquess is no longer the ruler in Fairyland, her return will mean only joyful reunions, not questing or testing. But how wrong she is, because her missing shadow has grown into herself and become quite wild–she’s appointed herself the Leader of Fairyland Below, and taken a new name: “‘Halloween, the Hollow Queen, Princess of Doing What you Please, and Night’s Best Girl.” The Wyverary stopped. ‘Why, she’s you, September. The shadow the Glashtyn took down below.“” Even worse, now other shadows are going missing and it may be Halloween who is to blame.
When September finally makes it to Fairyland and is–in a sense–reunited with her friends the Wyvern and the Marid, she’s actually reunited with their shadow-selves–so very different than the friends she knew. Even more significantly, she’s a year older and now a teenager, so her heart has done some growing since she was last in Fairyland. More risk and more conflict: “For though, as we have said, all children are heartless, this is not precisely true of teenagers. Teenage hearts are raw and new, fast and fierce, and they do not know their own strength. Neither do they know reason or restraint, and if you want to know the truth, a goodly number of grown up hearts never learn it.“
And there’s the crux of both the beauty and difficulty of Valente’s story: September’s wondrous journey through Fairyland Below is edged with sadness and loss about our shadow-selves and the dark, wanting pieces of ourselves we don’t always acknowledge. September’s missing companions, the question of her shadow-self’s freedom, even the visual dimness of the setting reinforce the sense that there are many sides to a story. The whimsy is still there, but it is an adult-edged whimsy, where reindeer are worried about being caught by (marriage) hunters, kangaroos mine jewels for/of their memories and the Alleyman sieves the shadows from Fairyland.
“‘No one said this was a bad place,’ she told herself. ‘No one said the bottom of the world was somewhere terrible. It’s only dark, and dark’s not so frightening. Everything’s dark in Fairyland-Below. That doesn’t mean it’s wicked.‘”
Because of the complexity and challenge of the message–a different version of growing up, if you will, more like a type of growing out and understanding–I’m not entirely sure Valente’s whimsical tone and imagery works quite as well for me as the first one did. Or, perhaps it does, and really, I’m just not as comfortable with the message. It’s hard to tell.
Stylistically, it is worth noting (again, as always) that Valente is a superb writer. I recently picked up another young-adult book by a writer who has wonderful adult works, and I was struck by how simple both the structure and language were. The Girl series doesn’t oversimplify for its readers; it will challenge and please at any age. This is the type of book whose color blooms as the reader ages, one that can be read at nine, fifteen and twenty-eight, and find it enjoyable each time. Highly recommended to fans of playful imagery, sophisticated prose and small diamond bits of hard truth hidden by shadows.