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Takes a big steaming dump on Narnia, Wonderland, Neverland, Hogwarts & Oz, with just a smidge of condoning child abuse
on 2 March 2016
Apparently Time Magazine, Neil Gaiman and everyone else in the world but me loves this book. I must admit Valente can conjure a gorgeously lyrical turn of phrase. And if you appreciate novelty, nearly every sentence has at least one new idea the reader must pause to visualize. Having said that, I came away from this book feeling like Valente has taken a big steaming dump on Narnia, Wonderland, Neverland, Hogwarts and Oz, without ever catching the slightest glimpse of their true value and beauty, while also fluttering within a hair’s breadth of openly supporting inequity and child abuse. I found myself absolutely Hating this book.... Hating it so much I had to capitalize the word Hate and still half-considered tacking on a few extra H’s... HHHHHHHHHated.
My initial frustration was with the relentless bombardment of inventions, which while omnipresent were not especially imaginative. It's as though Valente took Alice in Wonderland, The Wizard of Oz, The Chronicles of Narnia, Peter Pan, Harry Potter and a few others, threw them in a blender, and then poured the mixture arbitrarily into chapter-sized saucepans. One example that jumps out: in the Narnia books C.S. Lewis created the incredibly evocative 'Wood Between the Worlds.' Valente adds the thinnest coat of varnish imaginable to his idea, calling it 'The Closet Between Worlds.' Seriously?!? If this is meant to parody Narnia, I don't get it. If it's not meant as parody, it's hard to think of a less imaginative piece of literary theft; why not just name one’s villain 'Snarth Vader'?
What is that makes Oz, Wonderland, Narnia, and Middle Earth so wonderfully alive and evocative while the oodles of imitations always feel so lifeless and emotionally tone-deaf? I suspect a big part of the magic is that each is built on an extremely tightly-controlled hidden structure – so the surface characters, places and objects may seem whimsical and arbitrary, but they *feel* right because they embody the hidden structure. Valente’s Fairyland makes no apparent attempt to include this secret key to enchantment, so each and every idea feels as arbitrary as a Mad Lib: “Just then, September bumped into the [type of animal] of [abstract concept].” [Yawn.]
‘The Girl Who…’ (2011) reminded me strongly of ‘The Magicians’ (2009), by Lev Grossman. Both stories are primarily reactions to the Narnia series by C.S. Lewis, and both stories seem completely tone-deaf as to what makes Narnia feel special and magical. As one approaches chapter 19 of Girl, a horrible revelation emerges…
…is Valente for realzies going to do the exact same surprise twist ending Grossman used just a few years earlier in The Magicians? Sure enough, the Big Bad of her story turns out to be the child-hero who once saved Fairyland from evil, but refused to return to the mundane world, grow up and face adult responsibilities, and so has become a force of oppression in a fairyland where no one realizes they were once the child-hero. *Exactly* identical, note-for-note, and I didn’t care much for the twist the first time around, when it was at least a surprise (and ‘The Beast’ is genuinely scary, the only good part of Grossman’s otherwise lackluster and creeptastic book).
The Narnia stories say explicitly that the entire point of Narnia is to help equip children to grow up and face the real adult world, where they’ll know Aslan by another name (Jesus); if one has anxieties about growing up, is it entirely sporting to blame Narnia, which exists solely for the purpose of helping one grow up? Grossman and Valente come across like troglodytes who’ve smashed their way into a sacred temple of the imagination, couldn’t make sense of the sacraments (at least not without more effort than they’re prepared to invest), and so in retribution took a giant dump on the altar.
At this story’s climax we discover that the villain, The Marquess, is actually a 12-year-old girl, essentially Dorothy from Oz but with a dead mom, inadequate food and physically abusive, alcoholic father. She fell into Fairyland, deposed the wicked King Goldmouth, and lived to adulthood as beloved Queen Mallow. But then her ‘Fairyland Clock’ ran out and she was dropped back into reality, again a 12-year-old girl, where her physically abusive father was waiting (“My father found me and gave me a good thrashing… I tasted blood in my mouth.”) So when ‘Maud’ finally clawed her way back into Fairyland, she returned as a despot out for revenge against Fairyland for condemning her to exile and abuse.
Here’s what I needed to hear the heroine or any of her friends say: “Wait! Before we forcibly depose this admittedly-unjust ruler, could we take even 60 seconds to consider if there’s any way to get what we want without knowingly condemning a 12-year-old girl to horrible, persistent physical abuse? …Any way at all? …Just even a single minute? …Because we’re not evil, supposedly?”
Readers who experience any twinges of discomfort at the image of a 12-year-old girl’s ongoing physical abuse being shrugged off as acceptable collateral damage (“...with heart and wisdom” – Neil Gaiman) will be even more surprised to learn at the end that, while the villainous Marquess is motivated by her frustration at being exiled from Fairyland into abuse, the non-abused, well-fed heroine who still has both her parents is special and will never be exiled from Fairyland, so she can return every year. So the moral bedrock of the story is a bit like a man who was ‘right-sized’ from Wayne Enterprises stealing just enough food to keep his children from starving, then Batman swoops down from his mansion to beat the sh*t out of him – in the name of *Justice*.
Grab-bag of lesser frustrations:
• Ana Juan’s art is great but for me at least does not suit this story.
• No map of Fairyland? Really?
• This book is 288 pages – at least 200 more than necessary – and then on the very last page one learns that the story isn’t resolved, and you’ll have to read at least 1,152 more pages, not including the prequel, to learn how the story ends...? Frowny face emoticon.
• According to her Wikipedia page, Valente is currently churning out about 5 books/year. ‘The Girl...’ feels like she made it up as she went along, without even an outline, and never revised the first draft, so 5 books/year sounds about right. Am I a grumpypants for expecting authors to invest a bit more time & effort in books they’d like me to pay money for...? [Addendum: Valente confirms in an SFWA.org interview that she did in fact make this story up as she went along with no initial plan, outline or rewrites.]
If lyrical prose and constant novelty is your favorite aspect of the Wizard of Oz or Wonderland stories, and you’re not fussy about those novelties being particularly inventive, or connected with much of a plot, or fairyland having anything like the piercing sense of enchantment you’ll find in Baum, Carroll, Barrie, Rowling, Lewis or Tolkien, I must admit that Valente’s prose reads almost like poetry and offers a few strong one-liners and other bright moments. Obviously a lot of people love these books, but I wanted to at least give voice to those of us who’d hoped for a delicious new kind of fantasy milkshake but discovered our cup filled instead with dregs from the fantasy blender, with maybe just the slightest hint of tacit endorsement of child abuse.