Halloween, the Hollow Queen, Princess of Doing What You Please, and Night’s Best Girl

October 9, 2012 § Leave a comment

…Or so September’s shadow has become, in The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There, since being cruelly sliced from September’s side and taken down to Fairyland Below in the first book of the series, The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making.

Now September has returned to Fairyland to find that her shadow, Halloween, has caused a panic in Fairyland-Above by stealing everyone’s shadows (the source of their magic) to join her in her nightly revels in Fairyland-Below, with the help of the mysterious Alleyman. September must stand up to her impish and impulsive shadow, resist the temptations of constant, unbridled magic-making, and find a way to restore balance to Fairyland.

In Fell Beneath Fairyland, September is a slightly older, and more emotionally muddled, heroine—now a budding teenager, September’s heart is a bit more aching, and her instincts are a bit more honed. Her shadow is still the spitting image of the September who saved Fairyland in the last book, missing shoe and all—a couple of years younger, and so much more impulsive. Halloween is very much September’s Id, the child-self that growing September is leaving behind, and it’s this contrast that Fell Beneath Fairyland seeks to explore: what happens to a child heroine once she’s no longer such a child? Does a one-time savior of Fairyland get to enjoy the magical fruits of her labor and let untapped wishes loose, or is a heroine’s work dependent on balance?

One thing that knocked me head-over-heels in love with Circumnavigated Fairyland, the first book in the series, is Valente’s many homages to classic children’s literature, especiallyPeter Pan—September is often referred to as Heartless (like Peter, and, in the end, all children in Barrie’s novel), and the themes of escape, longing, and memory run deep.

That same credence is being paid here in Fell Beneath Fairyland—but September is on the outside, looking in as her shadow plays at being the Queen of Instant Gratification and Endless Partying. In Fairyland-Above, magic was made only by giving up a piece of yourself, or trading wits or deeds for it. But in Fairyland-Below, shadows have no such rules, and bandy magic about like silly string at a frat party. September is almost taken by her younger impulses as she watches her shadow, and the shadows of her friends Ell and Saturday, satisfy whatever impulses they have at the moment. The struggle within her older self is a pleasure to read—for what’s sadder, or more satisfying, than a young woman (as September is becoming) realizing that some pleasures can’t be hers? September grows up before our eyes in Fell Beneath Fairyland, and like growing up itself, the results are worthwhile, even if they are tinged with wanting.

As September reckons with her own dark side running amok, readers are allowed to revel in the unsettling setting of Fairyland-Below, which is one of the book’s greatest triumphs. As an underworld, Fairyland-Below is literally underneath Fairyland Above, and its sky is an exposed layer of dirt, decorated with blinking glass stars that are hung like lanterns, and a moon that is a giant clock face. Reading Fell Beneath Fairyland was like revisiting those old Raggedy Ann cartoons that I’d almost forgotten existed, and feeling the thrill of something so uncanny and frightening, for the child-me, and at the same time so lovely. Take, for instance, the Onion Man. Why is he there? Not sure, except that September saves him from nearly having his shadow stolen by the Alleyman. Why does he dance, and why is his head a giant onion? It’s never explained, but his dance is so painstakingly described that I could almost imagine the Danny Elfman score playing behind it, and reading the Onion Man’s angular, awkward, haunting dance made me viscerally recall an animation of a skeleton that lives somewhere in the underworlds of my own memory.

In comparison to the first Fairyland book,Fell Beneath is perhaps a bit too neat: September’s main conflict with Halloween is resolved almost too easily, in the end, and isn’t as finely wrought as September’s confrontation with the Marquess, at the end of the first book. The Marquess’s story was such a fascinating take on the oddities of the child-saves-another-world genre, and was so imbued with melancholy and wonder, that Halloween’s origin story and desires, as a villain, pale in comparison. Thank goodness for the shadow of the Marquess, who becomes a minor character in Fell Beneath Fairyland—I almost cheered when that familiar face showed itself. I’d missed her sad villainy.

But here’s the real rub: just when I was sighing for an emotional sucker-punch the likes of the Marquess in Circumnaviagted, in came the Alleyman, Halloween’s shadow-stealing assistant, to grant it.  I’d be a terrible reviewer, and a pretty nasty person, if I exposed the Alleyman’s identity here, and I will not do it for the world. But sufficed to say, the surprises at the end of Fell Beneath Fairyland played a poignant jig on my heart-strings after all (Ah! Wait until you learn how he got his name…), and reminded me what a master cook Valente is when it comes to carefully combining equal parts whimsy and heartache. Don’t for a second think that heartache has no place in a children’s novel, my friends. I’ll say it again, I’ve said it a hundred times. Children know tears. This book has happy ones in it.

 

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