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Archive for the ‘Fantasy’ Category

Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland is probably the most enigmatic fantasy tale ever written. Is this 19th century classic an adult fantasy, a children’s story, a political satire, an extended riff of nonsense, a trippy exploration of a child’s mind, an exercise in wordplay, or—Oh, Dinah!—a combination of them all? Critics and readers alike have pondered the fascinating contrast between its seeming facile surface of dreamlike experiences and the darker elements that lurk beneath.

Thus we have a vast array of interpretations on Alice, from stripped-down grade school stagings to Disney’s appropriation to Gregory Maguire’s postmodern tweak (see my recent review of After Alice on this blog). The characters and tropes have been so ingrained into our collective consciousness that it’s hard to conceive of a new approach to Wonderland. Yet Bruce Bierman, an East Bay drama teacher who works with adult actors over 50, has come up with a brilliant take on Carroll: What if the characters in the story are simultaneously elderly people in a memory care unit who suffer from dementia and Alzheimer’s disease?

In writing the script for Wonder, Bierman drew not only from Carroll’s text, but from his own life experience (always a good idea). His father lived with Alzheimer’s for a decade before passing away three years ago, so he’s seen first hand not only the changes experienced by memory care patients, but how they relate to others, and how staff at a memory unit relate to them in turn.

My own mother also struggled with dementia in the few years before her death, and one thing I and others noticed about her is that her personality changed dramatically—so much so, that at times she felt like a different person to us. Every day for her was a struggle to find her identity and the identities of those around her. Bierman wisely chose this struggle to be the driving force behind his play.

Wonder starts out with a group of elderly live-in patients entering a common room for a sing-along. Alice is one them—an old woman, not a child as in Carroll. For the girl Alice, her adventure is a just a dream that vanishes when she wakes up. For the elderly Alice, the adventure has far more weighty implications. While she gains a measure of self-respect and agency at the end, we all know that this is no lighthearted romp for her, that her struggle to find identity will remain. Fortunately, two of the characters—the Caterpillar and the Cheshire Cat—work at the memory unit and provide her with help along the way.

The other characters she meets in Wonderland—the Dodo, Duchess, March Hare, Dormouse, Mad Hatter, King and Queen of Hearts—are also residents of the memory unit. After an entertaining cast rendition of Jefferson Airplane’s classic song “White Rabbit,” Alice finds herself falling through a hole in her mind. In contrast to the residents, the characters she meets at the bottom of her fall are lively, funny, and—in the case of the Queen—irrational and angry. As the Cheshire Cat puts it, “We’re all mad here.” Alice’s interactions with these people largely follows what happens in Carroll’s story, though out of necessity Bierman’s had to trim quite a bit of Carroll’s packed text. He’s also made a few changes, such as substituting the Queen for the Dormouse in giving a “dry” speech to help Alice and others dry out after being in the Pool of Tears. There are places in the original Alice that go on and on, full of linguistic and mathematical puzzles, that would be out of place in a play.

As in the book, Alice’s primary antagonist is the Queen, who randomly shouts “Off with their heads!” and otherwise behaves quite erratically and ludicrously. Of all the characters, the Queen (in my opinion) most fully embodies a characteristic often found in people with dementia—an uninhibited rage, followed by unpredictable mood swings, including expressions of delight—yes, and even wonder—before lapsing into a silence.

After Alice gets through the trial scene at the end, she returns to the memory unit. I got the sense that, in standing up to the Queen, she has gained some self-respect and sense of agency. Hopefully, that will help her in the days to come.

About Bruce Bierman and Viewpoints:

Bruce’s Viewpoints class at Stagebridge employs concepts developed by choreographer Mary Overlie and directors Anne Bogart (Bruce’s mentor) and Tina Landau. Wonder started as a series of exercises with the over-50 members of Bruce’s class. When his father went into a memory care unit, Bruce began to notice an eerie parallel between Wonderland and his father’s ward. At one point he didn’t want to go on with Wonder, but his class encouraged him to continue with the script, which has undergone a number of changes (as all good scripts must), and eventually that led to an actual stage production.

According to Bruce, at one point he decided that he wasn’t responsible for representing Alzheimer’s and dementia to the world, that he was just going to serve Lewis Carroll, and that this play was his own interpretation of Wonderland. I’d say he does more than just interpret Carroll—this play, and the players who helped bring it to life, adds a depth of meaning that Carroll’s story never had.

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Philip Pullman’s Book of Dust Trilogy Debuts with La Belle Sauvage

First, a checklist:

Daemons and more daemons? Check.
Appealing child protagonist? Check.
Experimental theology? Check.
Raging maniacal perverted genius on a your character’s trail? Check.
Nappies? Uh…nappies?

I’ll explain, but first:

Seventeen years ago, British writer Philip Pullman made a big splash with his fantasy novel The Golden Compass. Set in an alternate version of Oxford, England, it featured an endearing (Shall I say “spunky?” Perhaps I shall…) girl protagonist named Lyra Bevacqua who navigates a quasi-steampunk world with an armored polar bear for a companion, bearing a magical instrument called an alethiometer (the “compass” in the title), with mysterious parents who are either evil or terribly important or both, on a quest to save children from being permanently separated from their animal familiars, which in this world are called daemons. It’s all quite fantastic stuff. Two sequels followed with new adventures and new strange worlds and angels and witches and character arcs gone haywire. Fun reading for young and old alike.

But you know all this already, of course. And if you don’t, I suggest reading The Golden Compass before tackling Pullman’s latest.

Lyra is at the center of La Belle Sauvage as well. Though she’s just a little baby, she has a mysterious pull on all sorts of characters, including an 11-year-old boy named Malcolm Polstead, who finds the infant, temporarily being housed by a cloister of nuns, to be just the most fascinating thing he’s ever seen. So we know right away that the target demographic for this book isn’t your standard 8-12 middle grade reader.

While the pace eventually picks up in the second half of the 400+ page novel, much of the first part consists of Malcolm helping the nuns at the cloister, thinking about who Lyra is, planning to fix up his boat (La Belle Sauvage, same as the book’s title), and tending to his job as a helper at his parents’ pub near the river Thames. Malcolm is one of those characters with so few character flaws that he seems even unlikelier than the assortment of daemons that populate the story. Actually, in real life it’s not unusual to come across a child devoted to helping others and doting on a baby, but in the world of fiction he’s a bit of an anomaly.

Pullman takes his sweet time showing how wonderful Malcolm is, and establishing his emotional ties to the river. He slowly adds elements of tension: a stranger with a vicious daemon, a repressive religious organization that takes over his school and turns kids into snitches, a number of messed-up adults who are apparently also interested in Lyra, and a scholar who turns Malcolm into a spy.

At this point, fair warning: SPOILERS AHEAD.

But all these dangerous elements take a back seat to the real challenge facing Malcolm, and indeed all folk in alt-Oxford and alt-London: a massive, supernatural flood of Biblical proportions. Malcolm and a fellow pub employee, 16-year-old Alice, escape with baby Lyra on La Belle Sauvage and fight not just for their lives on the raging flood, but also how to keep the baby happy—I kid you not. Finding fresh nappies*, baby formula, and a fire to heat the formula to the right temperature become just as important as securing food and a safe place to hide from the aforementioned maniacal evil person, who also wants Lyra (natch) and has a vicious hyena with a damaged leg for a daemon. As we eventually find out, he is also in possession of the only alethiometer known to be missing in this alt-world, which Malcolm eventually takes from him. (I assume the importance of this will be revealed in the next book in the series.)

The flood is a mind-boggler, launching Malcolm and Alice on a journey into strangeness that reminds me a bit of the Odyssey: they meet (and barely escape from) a witch with magical breasts with which to feed Lyra; find temporary shelter in a place that appears to be inhabited by people who can be seen but can’t see them; and finally get help from a friendly Thames river giant to escape from the faery world that has them trapped.

In between the nappies and baby feeding and barely staying alive (experiences that all new parents experience, no doubt), they defeat the evil person, but it’s not all buttercups and daisies. At the very end they barely escape with their lives when attacked by a ship from the Consistorial Court of Discipline, the real force of evil, who have been tracking them all this time. This tale doesn’t have much of a denouement at all: their rescuer, Lord Asriel, plucks them out of the flood waters just as La Belle Sauvage crumbles like a soggy box of matchsticks. But Asriel has places to go and things to do—no time for nappies, he—so he basically drops all three kids off at one of Oxford’s colleges and, well, that’s all folks.

There you have it. Can’t hardly call it a book for kids, especially when Malcolm at one point discovers he has the hots for the older Alice. Besides, Pullman is a very involved narrator who jumps around a lot and tells the story his own damn way. Kind of like your favorite uncle who’d come over for dinner, and everyone is waiting for him to tell a humdinger of tale, but he doesn’t want to tell it over dinner, and then he has to have his drinky-poo, and then he settles into your father’s favorite easy chair, and props his feet up, and scratches the dog behind the ears, and then asks to have his drinky-poo refreshed, and then has to use the water closet, and then finally he settles back in the chair and the dog circles around three times widdershins on the floor at his feet and he finally gets into the real story.

Or something like that.

* “nappies” is Brit for diapers, not things with which to wipe one’s mouth.

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Count me among those impressed when children’s book author Gregory Maguire turned the classic Wizard of Oz on its head, imbuing this dreamlike fantasy with adult humor, flipping the script on the Wicked Witch of the East, and making Dorothy a mere bit player in a story loaded with contemporary issues such as racism and anti-intellectualism. It was fascinating to me how he cleverly took the main events in Baum’s story and reconfigured them into a post-modern narrative. That Wicked was turned into a highly successful musical underscores the irony that its popularity was due to the popularity of the original story.

Maguire has gone on to write other contemporary takes on fairy tales (still a literary trend, for how long now?), and classic children’s stories (Lost, Hiddensee). In After Alice (HarperCollins, 2015, 273 pp.) he takes on another legendary classic, but to call Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland a children’s story is like calling the Bible an adventure story. There’s so much more to Alice than meets the reading eye. Lewis Carroll was not your garden-variety fiction writer. He packed so many meanings into his two Alice stories, much of it clever wordplay with mathematical overtones but much of it also comments on social morés and political figures, that it took an annotated version of his fantasies to unpack it all. The original Alice is a continual delight for multiple generations of readers, many if not most of whom are adults. It doesn’t have much of a story arc—basically, it’s Alice wandering around and innocently encountering absurd situations and characters—and as such is relentlessly contemporary. One might say, even post-modern.

Given all this, could Mr. Maguire create an alternative Alice to match his Wicked? I must admit, I had my doubts, but I was curiousier and curiouser as I set out to read it.

First off, the tale isn’t about Alice at all, who is relegated to the Dorothy role—distant, mythical, untouchable. It’s about her friend Ada, who falls down the same rabbit hole that Alice did, and met with many of the same characters—the talking flowers, the White Knight, the Cheshire Cat, etc. Maguire wisely devotes an entire chapter to the Mad Hatter and the Dormouse, one of my favorite episodes of the original Wonderland, but many of the other characters are given somewhat short shrift.

That’s because fully half the story isn’t about Ada at all, but Alice’s older sister Lydia, who isn’t in Wonderland but exists in a kind of Jane Eyre-ish domestic squabblefest involving overwrought encounters with Ada’s anxious governess, a young American man who disappointingly provides no romantic interest, and—most absurdly of all—Charles Darwin. Yes, that Charles Darwin. But Darwin is but a shadow, and the aforementioned young American is both his assistant and a guardian to a young freed American slave with the unlikely name Siam. (Yes, Siam. Get it?) All very Maguire-like.

Lydia’s above-ground narrative serves as counterpoint to Ada’s underground one. It ripples with the ridiculousness of overly polite Victorian English social maneuvering. But as a story it literally goes nowhere. Lydia shows no character development; at least Ada, who finally succeeds in both maneuvering herself and her friend out of Wonderland, does. While I found some of the Lydia narrative to be amusing, it was like eating a teacake without any tea, so to speak.

One could argue that this parallel narrative is perfectly fitting with Maguire’s post-modern take on things, but I’m afraid that in Lewis Carroll he has met his match. For example, he really tried to add a bit of ominousness with references to Persephone and Dante’s Inferno, but Carroll’s own original characters carried far more dark weight without need of any literary references. The Queen of Hearts in Carroll is terrifying, even when Alice finally realizes she and her cohorts are a mere deck of cards. In Maguire, the Queen is but a toothless noise in the background.

That’s not to say this is a bad story; Maguire’s chameleon-like stylings make it a worthwhile read, and his effort deserves credit for its audaciousness. But it doesn’t quite measure up, and measuring up to a masterpiece is a rabbit hole I’d rather not fling myself down.

Next time: we take in another tale set in Oxford, England, which is also a bit…different.

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a review of Dormia, by Jake Halpern and Peter Kujawinski. Houghton Mifflin, 2009

Preamble: the usual Spoiler Alert. I don’t reveal how the story ends here, but you won’t have a hard time guessing if you read the following review.

Young Alfonso has a problem: when he sleeps, his sleeping self does amazing things that he’d never be able to do when awake. At the story’s beginning, for instance, he wakes up to discover that he has climbed a very tall tree, with no memory of how or why he got there.

Sleepwalking is quite real, of course. I can attest to that: though not a sleepwalker myself, for a short time a friend of mine stayed in my family’s house when we were both teenagers. My friend woke up one morning to discover that, in his sleep, he’d climbed through a window, out onto the roof—three stories above ground. Needless to say, he no longer slept in the top floor of our house after that!

This story employs sleepwalking and a similar condition, waking sleep or “hypnogogia,” to full effect. Jake Halpern and Peter Kujawinski flip them from “disorders” into superpowers in their long (500+ pages) middle grade story about a boy who discovers that he is the Great Sleeper, and it is his destiny to return to a land called Dormia, set somewhere in the Ural Mountains, where he is to return a magical plant called the Dormian Bloom. Here, he learns, his ancestors have lived in secret for hundreds of years, struggling to survive against attacks by a hostile tribe, the Dragoonyans, and where only the Bloom, once planted in the ground, can protect the survivors. His uncle Hill whisks him off on a journey from Minnesota to some imaginary places, accompanied by quirky characters, until they finally arrive in the Urals. From there, the battle against the dreaded Dragoonyans takes shape.

I was definitely intrigued by the story’s premise. To their credit, the authors use super sleepwalking as both a way to build up excitement and a way to inject humor into the story. That’s because Alfonso isn’t the only one with sleeping powers—it turns out that the entire population of Somnos, Dormia’s last remaining city, also routinely falls asleep to perform certain tasks; for example, the sled driver who transports Alfonso around does so while snoring. The authors don’t overuse this technique, either, and they have great comic timing with some of the secondary characters.

That said, the novel wasn’t without some…issues. At times it strained my credulity, as its setting is both within the real world (the Bering Sea; the Urals) and in imaginary places along the way reachable only by boat. There were times when I simply couldn’t connect the dots on any kind of map in my mind. This wasn’t a terrible problem, just a distraction.

Some characters didn’t seem too well thought out. I’m thinking of a girl named Resuza, not a Dormian but a resident of a nearby remote city, who accompanies Alfonso for a while before disappearing with a mathematical clue. The narrator says that she’s dead, though I figured she’d turn up later, and sure enough she did—as a traitor. And then she claims she really wasn’t a traitor, and Alfonso believes her because…maybe he has a crush on her? It’s unclear.

Resuza’s puzzling behavior is connected to the unbelievable—and complicated—way that Alfonso discovers the secret way into Dormia. It has to do with a giant raven’s nest, and a huge root with a square hole in it (square root, get it?), and a watch with lines engraved on it that represent topographical lines on a map, and a metal egg that has to be turned in such a way that only someone like Alfonso with special hypnogogic powers can figure out how to line up that triggers the secret Dormian gate to open. What the giant raven had to do with any of this is never explained, but we do get to see Alfonso attacked and wounded by the monster—and then, in the ensuing action the wound disappears as though it never happened. It would make sense as a hallucination, but not as part of a plotline.

Finally, Alfonso makes it into Somnos just in time for it to be invaded. The authors chose to hop around different battle scenes rather than just sticking with Alfonso, and I found them to be unnecessarily long and confusing. The narrative tone throughout the entire novel is one that would appeal to readers who like tough guys, and Alfonso’s uncle Hill embodies that spirit as he wades into the fray with his .45 pistol and ancient aviator jacket. The tone is old-fashioned, but with a more modern narrative style. As an adult I found it tiresome at times, but I can imagine a 12-year-old really enjoying it.

The battles drag on (I’ve never liked long battle scenes, even in Harry Potter), some of it happening inside the huge, old, dying tree the Bloom will replace. Carnage ensues. Characters get killed, both “bad guys” and sympathetic “good guys.” The authors present cliffhanger after cliffhanger, and I kept thinking all was lost, until…well, you’ll just have to read it to find out, won’t you?

In sum: I give this one thumb up. After all, any story meant for preadolescents that lasts over 500 pages, and which I actually finish, has something going for it.

Postscript: I read this unaware that Dormia has two sequels to it now, though it hardly surprises me. I’m not inclined to read sequels, but make exceptions for stories that are…exceptional. Like the sequels to The Magic Compass, for instance. Speaking of which, look for my review of Philip Pullman’s first installment in his new Book of Dust series, La Belle Sauvage. Coming soon!

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Imagine, if you will, having an immortal lover who stays alive by vampirically possessing people and by so doing kills his current body, a game of infinite musical bodies. This lover wants to dominate you and use you to breed others like you, forcing you to mate with others as well as himself. You yourself are also immortal, but do it by constantly repairing your own body, a power that also allows you to shape-shift into any creature you choose. Your lover originally bought you as a slave and brought you to the New World, and though he opposes slavery for ordinary people he strives to make you and others like you a slave to his own wishes. What would you do?

This conundrum is at the heart of Wild Seed, the first novel in Olivia Butler’s Patternist saga. As an African American woman, she explored the social and political consequences of slavery—but from an imaginative perspective that melds dark folklore with the biological and psychological sciences. These are not the stereotypical vampire/werewolf stories that are making the rounds these days, but gritty stories of pain, betrayal, love, and hatred, that grow organically out of the fantastical elements she invented.

[slight spoiler ahead]

One sign of a powerful writer is the ability to take a monster and let the reader not only understand how that monster came to be, but to feel empathy for him. So it is with Doro, her perpetually killing male antagonist, who demands obedience and elicits fear from his subjects. Anwanyu, the story’s protagonist, simultaneously resists and relents, loves and hates, this monster. Her greatest power, though, is not biological regeneration so much as it is empathy, and when Doro finally comes to understand this, it is her greatest gift to him. I have not read any of the other books in the series, so I don’t know how long this gift lasts, or how Butler prolonged this epic entanglement over the centuries. But I suspect that both characters will undergo more change, as they illustrate an ironic truth about reality: A conscious identity can only be maintained over time by changing it.

Another element in this story that intrigued me is that both eternal characters not only change identities and bodies, they at times change their genders and sexual orientation. Thus Doro at times possesses a woman, and to accommodate him Anwanyu temporarily changes her body into that of a man so that they could mate. Doro takes this sexual flexibility even farther, though, by breeding couples who are biologically related in order to enhance the psychic powers of their offspring—a kind of incestuous exercise in eugenics. It reminds me of the ancient Greek myths, in which gods have sex with sister goddesses to procreate other gods and goddesses. Yet it also echoes the practices of slave owners, who treated slaves as reproducing chattel in their efforts to breed more slaves with qualities they deemed desireable.

Anwanyu sees all this—she’s old and wise, yet also young and beautiful—yet she loves having children, and mates with others other than Doro, with his blessing—and sometimes at his direction. While she resists breeding with her direct offspring, she comes to realize that, over the years, she has mated with her own progeny removed by many generations. Can you imagine if you had a lover and discovered that lover was one of your ancestors from long ago?

In sum, you can read this novel for many reasons. You may like its wildly imaginative fantasy premise. You may appreciate reading fiction about American slavery from a unique perspective. Or you may connect with complex characters that bend archetypes and force you to see them from different emotional perspectives. However you approach it, I recommend this story heartily, and only wish that Octavia Butler were still alive to talk about it. When she died in 2006, a marvelously talented writer left this world.

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Growing up as an army brat in Germany, I had no TV to watch, so I came to rely heavily on comic books for entertainment. First Superman, then Batman and Robin, filled my reading hours and fired my imagination. As I grew older I gravitated more to books, and by the time Marvel Comics hit the scene I considered myself too mature for comic books. Although I had to admit, the graphics were cool. First Conan the Barbarian, then Thor, then The Silver Surfer, and finally Doctor Strange. All featured mind-bending graphics that broke out of the boxy style employed by DC Comics that made Superman in particular look old-fashioned. These were the 60s, baby, and Marvel played to the psychedelic audience.

Doctor Strange wasn’t the main star in the growing Marvel pantheon. Maybe he was too far out and not muscled up enough, or he was too intellectual. Who knows? But he was…strange. And for a teenager whose personal motto at the time was “Wierdliness is next to Godliness,” this character spoke to me. The whole world felt strange to me at times, and I in it, so yeah I liked Doctor Strange! Plus of all the Marvel comics, his stories had the trippiest, mythiest, wildest, most psychedelic arenas for a superhero to play in. I didn’t need drugs—all I had to do to immerse myself in that far-out land was to look at the pictures as Strange dealt with cosmic characters and mindscapes.

When Marvel started churning out all their action blockbusters, I basically yawned. Okay, except for Spiderman. But the Avengers, Captain America, Iron Man, the Hulk, even Thor…no thanks. Too many heroes, too many explosions, too many fistfights. My taste in movies had also changed. I still caught some interesting sci fi flicks now and then, but I preferred more literary tales, or fantasy with folk elements. Marvel felt more like a factory, and when that happens I tend to shy away.

But when they did Doctor Strange, something inside me felt that old urge, the urge to explore the wild places in the psyche, that sense of wonder and power I’d had as a teenager. Especially when I found out that Benedict Cumberbatch, whom I’d loved in The Imitation Game, had the lead role. So I decided to plunk down my eleven bucks and watch it.

[Spoilers ahead. If you want to call them spoilers…]

I can tell you the exact moment in the movie when I said “Yes! I’m in!” to myself and did a little fist pump. It was when Strange had just gotten into his sports car, left the city, and with a smile on his face cranked up his engine—just as—oh, yeah!—Pink Floyd’s song Interstellar Overdrive poured out of the speakers. Just sayin’, I was an early Pink Floyd adopter; after one listen to their album Piper at the Gates of Dawn (1967), from which this song was taken, I clutched them to my breast as brothers in weirdness. So when this song came on in the movie I felt an instant bond with Strange, and I knew I was going to like the ride.

(Yes, I know this was right before Strange foolishly ran his car off the road into a horrific accident that ruined his hands. But still. I knew this was just the setup for when he was going to transform his egocentric persona into something much more metaphysical and out there, just like old times.)

So, weirdness followed. And fabulous special effects. And Cumberbatch doing a great job showing the transformation of Strange into a sorcerer battling black magic. And yet he needed more than just a bunch of villains intent on destroying the Earth; he needed someone to push against him and guide him in his transformation. That person, The Ancient One, was a man in the comic books, but here a woman, played by Tilda Swinton. And this was an inspired choice indeed. Swinton’s character is part pixie, part sorcerer, clever and empathic—yet also mysterious, with hints of darkness. And a kickass magic martial artist, adept at using those sparkly spell things as defensive weapons as well as transport devices. Best of all, she looks great doing it—really, Strange never quite looks comfortable in combat, but The Ancient One glories in it. Strange has a girlfriend in his quotidian life as a surgeon, but his soul mate is truly The Ancient One.

So, the movie ended. With more movies to follow in the pipeline, of course. Don’t know if I’ll get around to seeing them, though; with a few exceptions, sequels aren’t my thing. And really, though this flick is entertaining and stimulating, it’s still just an action flick that employs the usual compendium of action flick tropes. But any movie with an ancient Pink Floyd song to kick me into overdrive has value that can’t be measured by tropes alone.

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I’ll say one thing for Catherynne M. Valente, author of The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairy Land in a Ship of her Own Making (Square Fish, 2011): given a choice of paths, she will always take the non-sequitur. Thus her spirited, often charming, and thoroughly whimsical fantasy, about a girl named September (but looks suspiciously like Carroll’s Alice) who gets transported to Fairyland by a Green Wind riding a Leopard, is that and a thousand threads more. About halfway through the book I decided to stop trying to keep track of each character and fairy object and what they might portend for her, and let the picaresque play out while I sampled Valente’s sometimes overly wrought, often tongue-in-cheek, exasperatingly yet delightfully nonsensical style that could only exist in an adult who has permanently mind-melded with her bookish inner child.

Speaking of books, I found this one in the Young Teen section of my local library, but that’s a wildly off-target notion. The language in this book is Not Teen Language, at least as conceived by the Industry (cough cough). Why, it has an adult narrator, and it’s not even first person present tense! It uses words like “velocipedes” and “gaol”—now that’s so British it’s not even funny! Okay for young adults, but then the main character hasn’t cracked 13 yet, so what’s with that? Didn’t Valente ever hear about the “MC should be at least two years older” rule for young readers?

Ah, but this book is a different kettle of spriggans. It’s too playfully fey for most Potter readers, but those fantasy consumers—mostly girls, I expect—who take delight in Valente’s hilarious mockup of Victorian fairy stories will be well acquainted with this sort of thing. You know, Capitalizing every Noun as though they were German. Anthropomorphizing EVERYthing, whether a key or a lamp. Having a conversation with Death, who turns out to be quite small and dear, really. And so on. If it’s your cup of tea, stay for the crumpets and discuss amongst your friends. One of my favorite passages for the tea set:

She [September] certainly did not see Death stand on her tiptoes and blow a kiss after her, a kiss that rushed through all the frosted leaves of the autumnal forest but could not quite catch a child running as fast as she could. As all mothers know, children travel faster than kisses. The speed of kisses is, in fact, what Doctor Fallow would call a cosmic constant. The speed of children has no limits.

After much twisting and turning, Valente does pull off a bit of a miracle, rescuing the story from a mid-story sag (I confess I put it down for several weeks, though that may have been because I, like so many unfortunates in the New World, got caught up following the events of an election Fairy Tale far darker than this book) by putting September through beautiful transformations and dangers that had me spellbound, at least for a while. Here’s from her journey aboard her makeshift raft on the Perverse and Perilous Sea:

September could see it. She did not know what she saw. That is the disadvantage of being a heroine, rather than a narrator. She knew only that a red light glowed and went dark, glowed and went dark. In the shrieking whirl of the storms, she clung to her copper wrench and steered toward the light. Rain slashed at her face. Her skin had long ago gone numb and half blue. Everything ached from wrestling the raft to stay on course. Gleam bobbed and floated up ahead, valiantly trying to show the way, but the storm air was so awfully dark and thick. Lightning turned the world white—when she could see again, September looked up and glimpsed huge holes tearing open in her orange dress. A whip of wind lashed out and finished the job: the dress ripped along the sleeves and shot off into the dark. The storm ate up September’s cry of despair, delighted at its mischief, as all storms are.

So the narrator, in spite of her overly chatty excursions and silly observations, finally gets down to business. The end is most satisfying, with a major character twist that I shan’t tell you because that would be ever so dastardly of me to present such a spoiler to those who haven’t read the book but are now inclined to do so because of this review. (Don’t forget, this is but the first in an entire series—a series, mind you!—of Fairyland adventures by Ms. Valente).

But what I take mostly take away from this amusing story is its wry humor. It’s quirky, tableau-like presentation reminds me somewhat of the movie Moonrise Kingdom—or even The Big Lebowski—in a pseudo-Victorian environment, of course. It’s all cardboard cutouts and snuggly dreams and funny diversions, but in the end it has heart, and that’s what really matters.

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