The hero of our story is September. She is a twelve-year-old girl from Nebraska whose father is off fighting in World War II and whose mother is working in the factory making airplane engines. The Green Wind arrives with a Leopard named Little Breezes and offers her a trip to Fairyland. September is tired and bored with her life and a bit heartless, as all children are. "They have not grown a heart yet, which is why they can climb tall trees and say shocking things and leap so very high that grown-up hearts flutter in terror." It is all washing teacups and such and she doesn't see much of her mother, so she hops on the Leopard and goes with them. The Green Wind tells her the rules of Fairyland: no iron of any kind; the practice of alchemy is forbidden to all except young ladies born on Tuesdays (she was born on a Tuesday); aviary locomotion is allowed only by Leopard or licensed Ragwort Stalk, otherwise walk; all traffic travels widdershins; rubbish takeaway occurs on second Fridays; all changelings are required to wear identifying footwear; you cannot cross the borders of the Worsted Wood or "you will either perish most painfully or be forced to sit through a very tedious tea service with several spinster hamadryads."; and if you eat or drink anything of Fairy foodstuff you will be forced to return every year. And never give anyone your true name. Names have power.
When they are flying over the Earth, September asks how are they going to get there, as if they keep going they will be right back where they were. The Green Wind replies: "You're going to have to stop that sort of backward, old-fashioned thinking, you know. Conservatism is not an attractive trait. Fairyland is a very Scientifck place. We subscribe to all the best journals...The earth, my dear, is roughly trapezoidal, vaguely rhomboid, a bit of a tesseract, and altogether grumpy when its fur is stroked the wrong way! In short, it is a puzzle, my autumnal acquisition, like the interlocking silver rings your aunt Margaret bought back from Turkey when you were nine...The puzzle is not unlike those rings. We are going to unlock the earth and lock it up again, and when we have done it, we shall be in another ring, which is to say, Fairyland."
They arrive in Westerly, the Green Wind's home and the gateway into the rest of Fairyland when Betsy the grumpy gnome at customs won't let the Green Wind or the Leopard pass due to an edict of the Marquess who has forbidden them to enter. So, September must go on alone. The Green Wind gives her his smoking jacket to wear, as she is missing a shoe (it is important to have both shoes). They say goodbye and Betsy sends her through and she lands in an ocean of weird water that she swims to the shore of an odd land. She picks up a jeweled sceptre that she figures might come in handy "to ransom things, or bribe folk, or even buy something."
She first comes a sign post. "The wooden woman had four arms, each outstretched in a different direction, pointing with authority. On the inside of her easterly arm, pointing backward in the direction September had come, someone had carved in deep elegant letters: TO LOSE YOUR WAY. On the northerly arm, pointing up to the tops of the cliffs, it said: TO LOSE YOUR LIFE. On the southerly arm, pointing out to sea, it said: TO LOSE YOUR MIND. And on the westerly arm, pointing up to a little headland and a dwindling of the golden beach, it said: TO LOSE YOUR HEART." As she looks at the signs, September decides that she does not want to go the way of losing her life, as she wouldn't be able to climb the cliffs. She doesn't want to go the way of losing her mind because she has no raft. She has already gotten lost once and had no desire to do it again, so that's out. So she chooses to lose her heart. As the narrator point out: "You and I, being grown-up and having lost our hearts at least twice or thrice along the way, might shut out eyes and cry out, Not that way, child! But as we have said, September was Somewhat Heartless and felt herself reasonably safe on that road. Children always do."
The first people she comes across are some witches: sisters Hello and Goodbye and their husband the wairwulf (he is a wolf most of the month, but turns into a human during the full moon), Manythanks. One of them prefers the wolf; the other the human. They have a cauldron that they are stirring. There's a bit of confusion on September's part on what exactly a witch IS. She asks if they are making a spell, but that is the work of sorceresses. Magic is for wizards. Changing people into things is for thaumaturgists. Making people do things is for enchantresses. Curses and hexes is the work of stregas. Changing into owls and cats is brujas. It turns out witches look into the future, and when they do it they dress up in their best finery or the future will not take them seriously. The Marquess killed their brothers Farewell and Wellmet and stole Goodbye's Spoon. September decides that this will be her quest and adventure in Fairyland: to get Goodbye's Spoon back from the evil Marquess. Before she leaves, they offer her some food, which she takes, as it is witch's food, not fairy food.
Next, September meets her first companion of her adventure: A-Through-L, the wyverary, a sort of cousin to the dragon. A-Through-L's father was a Library and his mother was a wyverary. She decides to call him Ell for short. His mighty wings were chained up, as all winged things are, when he was a young wyverary by decree of the Marquess. Ell tells September of the days of Good Queen Mallow and how no one knows what has become of her, or if she is even alive. Ell is going to Pandemonium, the big city where the Marquess lives, because the Municipal Library of Fairyland, his grandfather, is there, His siblings have gone their own ways: M-Through-S is a governess and T-Through-Z is a soldier. The wyverary gives her some of his food and she accepts it as it is wyverary food.
After a frightful ferry ride, where September gives up her shadow, they arrive in Pandemonium, where the streets are woven as you walk them. Queen Mallow wielded a needle like a sword and the city still bears her mark, because there are some things that even the Marquess is not powerful enough to erase. Since Ell is not ready to go see his grandfather and sneaking into places and stealing things back is best done at night, the two of them go see a movie at a theater run by a dryad, who replies to Septembers worries about her not living in a tree that the film is made of camphor, which is a tree, and she gets to touch it all day long. They are watching a newsreel before the movie that has the Marquess in it, when suddenly, the movie Marquess tells her she needs to go to the Briary right now, that she wants to see her.
September sees a portrait of Good Queen Mallow and her Leopard, Little Breezes, on the wall of the Briary when she arrives. The Marquess cannot destroy that painting either. She arrives with her panther Iago, Panther of the Storms, who stayed with her. The Marquess knew all along about September and the Spoon and has a counteroffer. She will give her the Spoon and help her and "her pet" and give them presents too, but as September says, "Never for nothing." The Marquess wants her to go to a place in the Worsted Wood where it is always Autumn and after spending some time eating and drinking and jumping in piles of leaves and dancing to her heart's content, to go to the heart of the Worsted Woods and find a glass casket and get whatever is inside of it. But September is not entirely stupid. She won't go until she knows what is in the casket and she gets the Spoon first. The Marquess tells her it contains a magical sword so powerful it has no name. And she promises September that she will not use the sword to harm another soul. She has something far grander in mind for it, she assures her. Then, September tells her she will not go. That she will "do nothing in your name." So the Marquess threatens to turn Ell into glue, so September gives in in a second at the threat to her friend. She takes the Spoon and the fancy shoes the Marquess has insisted she take, as she no longer has any of her own.
Iago leads her out to collect Ell who is being held in a very large lobster trap next to a marid. A marid, as Iago explains to her are like djinn, which are air genies. Marids are water genies. In order to get a wish from them, however, you must defeat them in battle first, as you would the sea, their grandmother. This Marid boy's name is Saturday and he is blue and covered in tattoos. He can eat most things, but if he's been starved, as he has been now, he needs salt to replenish him. September breaks them both out of the cages with her Spoon, even though Saturday belongs to the Marquess, as Iago points out to her and this will just get her into further trouble with her. But now September has her traveling companions.
This adventure will come at some cost, but it will have its fun and informative moments too. In order to make the one week deadline they will have to try to catch a ride with wild velocipedes. They will meet fairies, changelings, and alchemist spriggans along the way as well as some odder and some darker characters. September will have to find her strength and fortitude and use her wits to see through the lies of the Marquess and make it to the end of her adventure with, hopefully, everyone intact. But don't forget, that she chose the path that leads to losing one's heart, whatever that may mean.
I love the way the narrator of this book takes you aside every so often for a few sentences or maybe a paragraph to talk to you personally outside of the story about the story. It's such a quirky, fun thing of the author to do. The narrator also insults writers at one point. This is a really wonderful book that should take it's place next to the greats like it: Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass and The Wizard of Oz book series. September is such a plucky girl who, even in the moments when she wants to throw the towel in and give up, finds the inner strength to pick herself little bit by bit and go on. That's what makes her such a great little girl. She makes mistakes, she's a bit heartless, she's loyal, and she wishes she could be just a bit more irascible, because an irascible girl would never have given in to the Marquess so easily. But a girl loving and loyal to her friends would. It is these qualities that make her the shining knight that she is and that will determine if her quest will be completely successful. I believe this book will stand the test of time and be read by generations to come.
One ought not judge her: All children are heartless. They have not grown a heart yet, which is why they can climb tall trees and say shocking things and leap so very high that grown-up hearts flutter in terror. Hearts weight quite a lot. That is why it takes so long to grow one. But, as in their arithmetic and drawing, different children proceed at different speeds. (It is well known that reading quickens the growth of a heart like nothing else.)
-Catherynne M. Valente (The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making p 4)
The trouble was, September didn’t know what sort of story she was in. Was it a merry one or a serious one? How ought she to act? If it were merry, she might dash after a Spoon, and it would all be a marvelous adventure, with funny rhymes and somersaults and a grand party with red lanterns at the end. But if it were a serious tale, she might have to do something important, something involving, with snow and arrows and enemies. Of course, we would like to tell her which. But no one may know the shape of the tale in which they move. And, perhaps, we do not truly know what sort of beast it is, either. Stories have a way of changing faces. They are unruly things, undisciplined, given to delinquency and the throwing of erasers. This is why we must close them into thick, solid books, so they cannot get out and cause trouble.
-Catherynne M. Valente ( p 35-6)
“This is the tub for washing your courage,” Lye said…”I didn’t know one’s courage needed washing!” gasped September… “When you are born your courage is new and clean. You are brave enough for anything: crawling off of staircases, saying your first words without fearing that someone will think you are foolish, putting strange things in your mouth. But as you get older, your courage attracts gunk and crusty things and dirt and fear and knowing how bad things can get and what pain feels like. By the time you’re half-grown, your courage barely moves at all, it’s so grunged up with living. So every once in a while, you have to scrub it up and get the works going or else you’ll never be brave again. Unfortunately, there are not so many facilities in your world that provide the kind of services we do. So most people go around with grimy machinery, when all it would take is a bit of spit and polish to make them paladins once more, bold knights and true.”
-Catherynne M. Valente ( p60)
“It’s…turning lead to gold, right?” said September. All three spriggans laughed uproariously…. “Oh, we solved that long ago!” Rubedo chuckled. “I believe that was Greengallows, Henrik Greengallows? Is that right, my love? Ancient history has never been my subject. A famous case study even reported a method for turning straw into gold! The young lady who discovered it wrote a really rather thin paper—but she toured the lecture circuit for years! Her firstborn refined it, so that she could make straw from gold and solve the terrible problem of housing for destitute brownies.” “Hedwig Greengallows, my dear,” mused Citrinitas. “Henrik was just her mercurer. Men are so awfully fond of attributing women’s work to their brothers! But, September, you have no idea how freed we all felt by Hedwig’s breakthrough. It is tedious to spend centuries on one problem. Now, we have several departments.
-Catherynne M. Valente ( p 140-1)
She did not want to sniffle—what was a little hair? She had already lost it once after all. But that was magic, which could be undone, and this was scissors, which could not. And so, as the scissors sliced smoothly through her hair, she cried a little. Just a tear or two, rolling slowly down her cheek. Somehow, she had thought it would hurt, even though that was silly.
-Catherynne M. Valente ( p 173)
“How old are you?” snorted Hannibal, the pair of straw sandals. “I’m twelve, Sir.” “Well, that’s no good at all!” Hannibal yelled. “Never trust anyone under one hundred!”
-Catherynne M. Valente ( p 198)
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