Catherynne Valente's Oeuvre is a little alarming when you first catch sight of it. At 33 she's already written 14 novels and vast profusions of poetry, short stories and essays. Valente's best-selling book is a young-adult novel called The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, and it makes a good starting point. Better than good: it is in fact one of the most extraordinary works of fantasy, for adults or children, published so far this century. This month Valente added a sequel called The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There.
The titles are unwieldy, but that's intentional: it's an unwieldiness born out of Valente's love for those unwieldiest of tools, words. The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland is the story of September, a 12-year-old girl from Omaha who gets a visit from a dapper fellow known as the Green Wind. "You seem an ill-tempered and irascible enough child," he says, then promptly offers her a ride to Fairyland on the back of the Leopard of Little Breezes. There she makes a fast friend in the form of a wyvern--or possibly a wyverary, which would be the offspring of a wyvern and a library--named A-Through-L. September discovers that all is not well in Fairyland, and it falls to her to put things right.
The sequel, The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland, takes September to Fairyland-Below, a wilder and even more magical region, to which the shadows of the inhabitants of Fairyland have been migrating en masse. The shadows are intoxicated by their newfound freedom from their solid counterparts--and their Queen turns out to be none other than September's own shadow.
Both these books are fantasies, but there's nothing cute about them: they're challenging and darkly beautiful and hugely ambitious. They're fantasies, but they also consider the basic question of fantasy itself: When the revels end and you must leave Fairyland, how do you face reality again? And if you had a choice, why would you leave Fairyland at all?
But to summarize Valente's work is to miss its humor, its wise self-awareness and, above all, its brilliant details, which demonstrate a restless imaginative power unlike anything else in contemporary fiction. It's to miss the melancholy soap golem who gives September a bath; a stampeding herd of migratory bicycles; and the terrible sleeping blue lions who serve the Marquess, Fairyland's wicked regent, and remain asleep and dreaming even as they do her cruel bidding. Over time readers learn, as does September, to watch these details closely, because as in all great fairy tales, anything that looks merely ornamental or accidental inevitably turns out to be load-bearing and crucially important.
At times Valente seems to be trying to throw her arms around all of Wonderland, Narnia and Oz at once--not to mention the Kingdom of Wisdom from The Phantom Tollbooth--to synthesize them and push the tradition further. Just as those books did, her work challenges the idea that myths are things that were made a long time ago by people whose names are long forgotten. Valente is making new myths right now, right before our eyes. Don't miss the show.