Thursday, June 28, 2012

Round trip

I don't think it was the title that made me curious about Catherynne M. Valente's The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making. The audiobook has been in my possession for quite some time and I can't even say what motivated me to choose it from the dozen (!) or so library audiobooks currently residing on my home bookshelf. It was probably something as prosaic as length. "Oh, I need something in the six-to-eight-hour range." Such is the way we select books to listen to.

This book, which I understand started out as a web-novel (the first [only?] to be awarded the Andre Norton Award for Young Adult Science Fiction and Fantasy), is the story of September (who knows that you shouldn't give out your full name in Fairyland), a bored and lonely girl possibly living during World War II in Omaha, Nebraska. I say possibly because if the actual date was mentioned, I missed it; but her father is away at war and her mother works long hours in a factory building planes. She reads a lot -- hence her knowledge of the workings of Fairyland -- so when the Green Wind appears at her window and asks if he can escort her there, she takes him up on his offer. Something is amiss in Fairyland and September is the only one who can fix it.

She meets some new friends along the way, most notably a Wyvern (who seems pretty sure that his father was a library) named A Through L, a dragon-like creature (pictured on the cover) whose wings -- like those of many of the magical creatures -- have been chained by Fairyland's ruler, the Marquess. She meets the Marquess, who threatens her new friend with torture and death unless September can retrieve a talisman (a sword ... which turns out to be a wrench). September sets off on her journey to find the talisman, building her ship -- among the many ways she travels on her quest.

As befits a serially published novel, each complicatedly named chapter ("In Which September Meets the Marquess At Last, Argues Several Valid Points But Is Pressed Into Royal Service Anyway, Being Consoled Only By the Acquisition of a Spoon and a New Pair of Shoes.") features a discrete part of September's journey. There's not much chapter-ending suspense here which would make the book work well as a classroom readaloud (or a road-trip book). I've seen it compared to Alice in Wonderland, The Wizard of Oz and The Phantom Tollbooth.  There's lots of wordplay and interesting vocabulary (the novel's very first word is Exeunt), and those kids who read and enjoy a lot of fantasy may be amused by September's book knowledge of how things are supposed to play out there, but the story kind of fell flat for me. The details are all here -- descriptions of creatures and landscapes and many homages to fantasies that have gone before -- but I had trouble digging out an interesting story from it. There's nothing new about the story -- girl travels to Fairyland to save it and does -- it's the telling that's unusual. Maybe I wasn't in the mood for the telling.

Or maybe it was the narrator, the author herself. Let me begin by saying that she wasn't bad, but she doesn't do much to enliven her story. Granted, you don't want inexperienced author-narrators attempting to jazz things up (oh, the horror!), but I found her reading style too neutral and soporific in the extreme. Her voice is low to begin with and she reads with almost no inflection. I often had difficulty hearing what she was saying, and occasionally could not understand her altogether. In the category of what-bothered-me-the-most: she seemed to swallow the S of September, which often sounded to me like Eptember. I think I understand why the publisher made this choice -- the novel's narrator is wholly omniscient and comments frequently on September's decisions and journey (which can make for a very fun listen) -- but a more lively narrator (the kind from the sound booth) would have gone a long way in this audiobook.

A sequel is due out this fall, catching up at least one of first novel's hanging threads (here's a cryptic clue: Peter Pan anyone?). And while I'm riffing on Peter Pan, the obvious narrator is the talented Mr. Dale ... but he probably costs a lot! Who else? I don't want to pile on, but there's Alan Cumming, Jayne Entwhistle, Katherine Kellgren, or Bahni Turpin.

[The artist Ana Juan provided some trippy spot illustrations for the print version and this is one of them, titled "Thy Mother's Sword." The only place I could find it and save it was at Amazon. While I remember the sword, I can't recollect the mushrooms.]

The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making by Catherynne M. Valente
Narrated by Catherynne M. Valente
Brilliance Audio, 2011. 7:16

1 comment:

Jen (Devourer of Books) said...

I'd heard so much about this book, but it sort of sounds disappointing.