Received to review via Netgalley; publication date 26th October 2021
This is a novella which takes a number of different elements and whisks them together — and to explain too much about what exactly goes into the mix might tip you off about what’s going on in Valente’s Arcadia, so I won’t. As you’d expect of Valente, it’s rich language with lots of descriptions, and it’s worth lingering over to let her paint the pictures for you. Even as a very non-visual person, it always works.
I feel like I’m missing a lot about how the story is put together — there’s an obvious level that is quickly apparent, of course, but I think there’s most likely a lot more that I didn’t catch onto at first. I’ll probably at least skim through it again and see what I can spot.
It’s clever, but because of the nature of the story — again, not saying too much — there’s not a lot to grab onto in terms of character, which is often how I get most hooked into a story. So it’s not a favourite, for that reason, but something I did enjoy reading.
The plot of this book? A war-preventing intergalactic Eurovision contest in a decidedly Hitchhiker’s Guide-style universe world, where newbies who lose get obliterated and the rankings determine the distribution of galactic resources. It’s a sentience test, designed to figure out whether a species can be trusted to join the ranks of sentient species or needs to be nuked from orbit to prevent future wars. It’s full of glitz and glamour and impossibilities, and Valente has a hell of a lot of fun coming up with weird species and the ways they perform and relate to each other and get high and start wars and have sex.
In fact, she has so much fun with that that the story of Earth’s discovery and non-optional invitation to join the latest contest in order to save Earth is pretty eclipsed by the sheer torrents of verbiage about aliens shiny and strange. It takes a while to realise that Decibel Jones is pretty much the main character, and honestly he’s always pretty much secondary to the wild vagaries of Valente’s imagination.
If you know Valente’s writing, then you can imagine how this comes out. At times, it’s like a firehose of adjectives blasting straight at your eyes, and it takes five minutes to work through a page because the colours are all running — a metaphor, of course, but honestly that’s the indistinct impression I end up with. There’s just too much going on, and it never stops.
And I know it’s not meant this way, because it’s Valente, but it sounds like it’s making fun (in that “oh god SJWs what will they come up with next” way) of some of the language queer people use to describe themselves, and I really don’t find the joy in that. I know it’s meant to be playful, maybe even freeing, but knowing how people complain about LGBT alphabet soups already, it stings. Of course that’s a personal reaction; probably others are really enjoying the freedom from labels pasted onto the characters.
I didn’t connect to the characters or to the plot, and in the end it just felt like I was being hit repeatedly in the head with a discoball while being attacked from all sides with glitterbombs, while someone shouted “ARE YOU HAVING FUN? WHY AREN’T YOU HAVING FUN? IT’S SO QUIRKY AND OFF THE WALL! HAVE FUN DAMN YOU! MOOOORE GLITTER! WHY AREN’T YOU HAVING FEELINGS??” in my ear. So the big finale didn’t come off, I just rolled my eyes.
I do enjoy Valente’s prose in some instances, but nothing about this worked for me — particularly since I think the tone and humour is frequently ripped absolutely directly from Douglas Adams, do not pass go, do not add anything original beyond LOTS MORE ADJECTIVES and a spot of David Bowie. It feels like Hitchhiker’s Guide with the volume turned up to distortion point.
Meh, meh, and meh again. I’m not entirely sure why I stubbornly finished this book, to be honest.
The Girl Who Raced Fairyland All the Way Home, Catherynne M. Valente
It’s been a long road with September, and she’s grown up so much. The final book does so much, winding all the stories to a graceful close and doing so with style, emotion and a lot of cleverness. In other words, exactly as you’d expect from Valente and this series. I won’t say she can’t put a foot wrong, but the narrator is so charming and the world of Fairyland so wild and wonderful that I’m willing to forgive it any number of sins. (Whether it’s willing to forgive me entirely depends on its mood that day. But there, that’s the whimsy getting hold of me.)
And again, the ending is why I think this series is really more for adults than it’s been marketed, or even reviewed by a lot of people: you need to know the stories and have the experiences to understand what Valente does with them fully. The cleverness isn’t all obvious, and if you think you’re too adult for this series, well… I can understand it not being your thing, but there’s also a fair bit of snobbishness going round about books that get classed as YA.
In any case, it’s always a relief to come to the narrator’s reassurance at the end that she’s waiting for us to come back, settle in, and read it all again. I have no doubt I will.
It’s rather weird and jarring to go from the last book into this one focused on someone who isn’t September. The narrator nods to that fact, but really it’s no less infuriating: the last book left September in the lurch and I needed to know. It wasn’t so bad on this reread, but still. Still!
It’s not that Hawthorn isn’t a darling and his companions aren’t excellent and that the depiction of our world through the eyes of Fairylanders isn’t funny and wry and all wonderfully aslant, because all of those things are there. Hawthorn is a darling, his Rules for understanding the world are great, Tam is great. But. September!
Reading it a second time and knowing that, though, and having some more patience with it, I did love all the callbacks to September’s story, the little narrative references and mirrorings. It’s all very clever, in a very typically Valente-ish way, and it’s enjoyable to read it and notice what she’s up to. (And that level of the reading is what makes me think the series had so much to offer older readers as well as young: there’s just so much cleverness to savour.)
But I’m still very glad to get back to September and Ell and Saturday when this book is over.
The Girl Who Soared Over Fairyland and Cut the Moon in Two, Catherynne M. Valente
I keep thinking, looking back at these, that each book alone is definitely not my favourite of the series for this and that reason. I think the point is that I love it as a series: you need to see the whole of it to see what Valente’s really doing, and one installment alone doesn’t quite satisfy. Standing alone, the book is whimsical and fantastical and touching and glorious, but I wouldn’t recommend reading it on its own. You need all the build up, all the cleverness.
That said, this book does have Aroostook, which is pretty awesome, and the Blue Wind and her puffins. Definitely awesome. And taxi crabs, and, and, and.
(That seems to be my refrain with books I love. I don’t think it’s a bad expression of all the muchness that some books provide.)
The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There, Catherynne Valente
Not my favourite of the Fairyland books, on reflection: it’s a little lonely without A-Through-Ell and Saturday, even though their shadows are very much in evidence. It remains a ton of fun, though, and is saved from being formulaic by the fact that September doesn’t just repeat the same old adventures. The narrator is a joy, as ever: secretive and teasing and confiding and warm. It’s just all so cleverly done, the tropes and the departures from them, that I remain utterly charmed throughout.
Also, though I miss A-Through-Ell and Saturday, it’s worth noting Aubergine, who is a darling.
I still think that these books are at least as much aimed at adults (or voracious readers of any age) who get the references and understand what the narrator is doing — it’s so much more fun when you know what sly twist Valente has added now — as they are at young adults, or however this was marketed. It’s a pretty quick and easy read, but it’s clever.
The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making,Catherynne M. Valente
This is a reread for me, for the sake of pure delight, and it definitely worked to uplift me during my exam period. I know these books show up in the young adult section, sometimes even the children’s section, but I really don’t think they’re primarily meant for kids: the knowing, clever narrator is surely aimed at someone with years of experience of books, including books where people go to fairyland. Surely the references — like September being Ravished — are there for the clever reader with a wide background. There are kids who have that background already, but I still can’t help but feel that it’s a book (well, a whole series) that’s really meant for adults.
Which is not to say that it’s not pure magic. Valente’s writing is just delicious, and I enjoy the heck out of her narrator. I love A-Through-Ell and I love the complex nature of the Marquess and her background; I love Saturday and the way Marids live; I love all the little details we catch glimpses of while the narrator hurries us along. (And I’m sure they’re meant for exactly that tantalising purpose.)
Perhaps some of it just a little too whimsical to really swallow, but I think that’s my fault for having too much of a grown up heart. I want to love the velocipedes, I do.
The Glass Town Game feels a little like Fairyland-lite. Based on the childhood games and stories of the Brontes, including Branwell, Valente delivers another kind of portal fantasy in which the Brontes find themselves in the middle of their own imagined world. The four are generally fun to follow, though Branwell is rather annoying (probably quite in line with the real Branwell). It’s all very whimsical and charming, but the Fairyland books are better at that, so it didn’t quite work for me; I’ve seen Valente do it better.
That aside, it’s an absorbing read, with so much cleverness, including sly references to the Brontes adult work and little pieces from their biographies, etc. It ticks along at a fine pace, and each of the siblings gets the eye of the narrator on them in turn, dissecting their faults and flaws and cheering for their strengths and cleverness. You can’t quite root for Branwell (though you can understand him), but Charlotte in particular makes an excellent heroine. The first half is a little slower, and might take some getting into, but after the halfway point it picks up pace a lot.
If I were recommending somewhere to start with Valente’s work, it wouldn’t be this, but it’s definitely entertaining and beautifully written. It’s more in line with the Fairyland books in terms of style than her adult novels; it doesn’t come across as more poetry than prose, if that’s something which bothers you about her books like Deathless and Palimpsest.
The Refrigerator Monologues, Catherynne M. Valente, Annie Wu
If you’re not into comics, you might not know about the trope of “women in refrigerators”, recognised by Gail Simone. Basically, it involves female characters who are killed off to further a male hero’s story — like Alexandra DeWitt, who is literally shoved in a refrigerator to die for the manpain of Green Lantern. Catherynne Valente takes a bunch of those stories and lets the women speak for themselves. If you like working it out, don’t worry; I won’t spoil which women are included in the line-up.
It’s a fun bunch of stories; they don’t end well for the women involved, because that’s the set-up here, and there’s a certain amount of rage at how this shit keeps on happening in Superhero Land (not to mention everywhere else as well). So if you’re looking for a transformative work that changes these stories, that’s not what this is. For now, it just gives the women voices; lets them tell their half of the story.
I enjoyed it a lot, and I’ll be looking out for a copy just to have — I borrowed the copy I read. The art included is pretty cool too (though this is a prose work, not a comic).
What can I say about this book? I just finished it and I feel a little dizzy, drunk on words and possibilities. I don’t know what to make of it, and I don’t even really care. It served up so many questions, so many mysteries, and yet I found it entirely satisfying anyway — even though the ending still leaves a question mark.
Valente’s writing is beautiful, as ever. The mixture of media she uses — scripts, transcripts, diaries — let her really indulge in it, play with words and throw ideas around like splashes of colour. It rubs off on you; I’ll be writing like Valente for at least a week now, like a kid trying on their mother’s high heels. Not sure it really suits me, but playing with the idea all the same.
I can’t tell you about this book; I can’t explain it with anything other than a handful of impressions. I think I want to read it again. It worked for me; it might not work for you. I’m sure there are people it will leave entirely cold, and I might’ve been one of them, on a different day. Today Valente drew me in and had me eating it up: her black-and-white movie world, her sparkling and astonishingly fertile worlds out there in space, the Mars and Venus and Jupiter of bygone sci-fi. Another day, the profligacy of plot and imagery and illusions to mythology and imagination might have turned me off.