After last week’s heavy epic, I thought I’d choose something shorter and lighter, so I’m recommending `The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland In A Ship Of Her Own Making’ by Catherynne M.Valente. This was first published in America in 2011 and is available in paperback or on Kindle. If you’ve been waiting since 1871 for something to read after `Alice Through The Looking Glass’, this is it. First though, a quick whimsy test. `Seventh, and most important, you may in no fashion 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.’  Were you charmed by this sentence? Or did it set your teeth on edge? If the former, you will probably like this book. If the latter, go off and find something grittier to read.

Still here? The heroine of `The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland…’  is 12 year-old September. Lonely and bored in wartime Nebraska, she allows herself to be carried off to Fairyland by the Green Wind and his leopard. Inquisitive September meets a series of eccentric  characters such as a peppery gnome customs official and a golem made from soap,  plus personified concepts like Latitude and Longitude. This all reminded me of  `Alice in Wonderland’ or Norton Juster’s 1961 classic, `The Phantom Tollbooth’. Eventually though a plot does emerge. September discovers that Fairyland is no longer the happy place it was in the reign of good Queen Mallow. The new ruler, a sinister child called the Marquess, has chained the wings of all fairies and other flying creatures. When the witches, Hello and Goodbye, describe how the Marquess killed their brothers and stole the spoon they need to foretell the future, September offers to get the spoon back.

On her journey to Pandemonium, the capital of Fairyland, she teams up with Ell (short for A-Through-L) a dragon-like creature who claims to be a cross between a wyvern and a library (don’t ask). In Pandemonium,  September has a frightening encounter with the Marquess but still dares to free one of her prisoners, a Marid boy called Saturday who can grant the wish of anyone who defeats him in combat.  The Marquess threatens to kill Ell if  September doesn’t fetch her the contents of a casket hidden in  the notoriously dangerous Worsted Wood.  September hurries to the Autumn Provinces where extraordinary adventures and ordeals await her. Can September save her friends, defeat the Marquess, and find her way home?

A brief plot summary makes `The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland…’ sound much less original and much more twee than it is.  In spite of being based on standard fairy-tale patterns, the storyline is excitingly unpredictable and there is a constant sense of danger. When September starts to turn into a tree or sets sail in a boat lashed together with her own hair, it is genuinely hard to guess what will happen next. Things can change from funny to sinister within a sentence and a startling plot twist near the end throws  new light on everything that has gone before. This version of Fairyland is not all pink and sparkly like a little girl’s dream.  Early on, September is warned that `Fairyland is an old place and old things have strange hungers…There must be blood.’  And there is. Throughout her journey, September meets children who are unhappy, lost, threatened or imprisoned. September  herself has to make some grim choices, go through real suffering, and face death itself as the plot pits her against that most implacable of enemies – a little girl with a grievance.

This is also a story full of warmth, wordplay and sensory delights. Valente is an exuberantly inventive writer who refuses to simplify her language for young readers. There are ravishing descriptions of  bubble baths to wash courage, wishes and luck; a fairy city crafted from every kind of cloth from crimson organdy to lavender crepe; and a Spriggan wedding feast with `sheafs of toffee bundled together like wheat, squash soup in tureens shaped like stars, golden pancakes…butter domes carved like pinecones, a stupendous broiled boar with a pear in his mouth and parsley in his hoofs.’  It’s a shame that the rather grotesque illustrations are in black and white as this book sizzles with colour. Valente imagines some absurd things, such as an annual migration of wild velocipedes, but writes about them with such matter of fact conviction that they seem enjoyably real.

So does the heroine. In the very first chapter, September, with her bright orange dress, a mole on her left cheek and large ungainly feet in prim mary-janes, stomped into my head and refused to budge. September goes off on her adventure without even leaving a note for her mother. The narrator explains that, like most children, September is Somewhat Heartless. I was a little disappointed that this robustly selfish girl grows a heart rather quickly but she remains strong and smart and unusually good with plumbing. As the narrative later points out, September doesn’t have a fixed destiny. She is the one who chooses to turn her trip to Fairyland into an heroic quest, giving herself a new sense of purpose. September makes plenty of mistakes but she is braver than she believes herself to be and faces up to the consequences. She’s a heroine I gladly followed into the sequel – `The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland And Led The Revels There’. Perhaps you will too. I’m in Belgium next week, so until two weeks time….