From the start, Catherynne Valente’s “The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making” announced that it was something new in fantasy. In a dozen words – one of them six syllables – its title promised high drama, an empowered female protagonist and an unusual richness of language. Written for young readers, it delivered on the expectations its title set, with a sophistication and free-spiritedness that attracted a substantial teen and adult following.

Now the Fairyland series’ fifth and final volume arrives, and any latecomers should definitely go back four steps and start at the beginning. The saga has come a long way since the initial volume first appeared online and was crowdfunded into permanent existence by enthusiastic fans, young and old alike. Since 2011, Peaks Island resident Valente, author of “Radiance,” “Deathless” and other novels decidedly for adults, has taken her valiant teen main character, September, to the underworld, to the Moon and beyond. Now it’s time to wrap everything up, assuming a tale full of octopus assassins, combat wombats, library security bears and sentient bathtubs can be easily concluded.


The story picks up where it last left off, with September freshly sprung from captivity and suddenly 17 again and not 40, her youth having been taken by a Moon-Yeti and then returned by a Dodo. Without her consent, she has been crowned Queen of Fairyland and All Her Kingdoms. For those readers who have not quite kept up, the narrator summarizes thusly in the opening pages: “In short, everything was just as you and I left it not so very long ago. The world had gotten itself turned on its ear and couldn’t hear itself think for the braying and honking and ‘see here, young goblins’ of the royal mob.”

In order to remain Queen, September reluctantly must participate in a Royal Race, competing against other former rulers, both dead and alive. The object of the contest is to find and return the Secret Heart of Fairyland, whatever that might be. September has little idea how to proceed, but she is lucky enough to have a willing company of compatriots from various adventures to assist her. They include: Blunderbuss, a giant wombat made from yarn; A-Through-L, a book-loving hybrid of a dragonlike wyvern and a library; a gramophone named Scratch; and Saturday, a boy who once lived in the ocean and appears and reappears from outside time.

Meanwhile, September’s parents and her Aunt Margaret have found their way from Omaha, Nebraska, to Fairyland and want nothing more than to be reunited with the girl after such a long time parted.

A lot happens in the “The Girl Who Raced Fairyland.” September encounters old friends and new foes alike and faces adversaries as varied as the Rex Tyrannosaur and the Greatvole of Black Salt Cavern. She and her allies have narrow escapes and heartbreaking setbacks. But the plot is not really the point. The point is the language with which Valente stacks one marvel atop another.


Rarely does one noun, verb or adjective stand alone amid the ornate prose. Lists accumulate in subordinate clauses, and paragraphs puff up, erecting an unwieldy edifice of reference and allusion. Characters have multiple identities and mutating motivations. Nothing is as simple as it first appears.

“The Girl Who Raced Fairyland” may remind readers of the fantastic imaginings of Lewis Carroll, Frank L. Baum, E. Nesbit, James M. Barrie or Neil Gaiman. But Valente’s is a unique voice, adept at intricate wordplay, capable of daffily detailed world-building and eager to spotlight a heroine who doesn’t need rescuing and prevails thanks to her own kindness, bravery and common sense. Some readers may find the whimsy cloying, like gulping down a banana split after eating a cookie sheet of marzipan, but those tuned to the author’s idiosyncratic wavelength will be happy with how she brings the series to its conclusion.

Will this volume truly be the last Fairyland adventure? Maybe, maybe not. The narrator remarks, “Endings are rubbish. No such thing. Never has been, never will be. There is only the place where you choose to stop talking. Everything else goes on forever.”

Here’s hoping Valente keeps Fairyland safely in her back pocket while she continues her distinctive career as a writer for all ages.

Berkeley writer Michael Berry is a Portsmouth, New Hampshire, native who has contributed to Salon, the San Francisco Chronicle, New Hampshire Magazine, the Los Angeles Review of Books and many other publications. He can be contacted at:

Twitter: mlberry

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