“Every person draws a map that shows themselves at the center. But that does not mean that no other countries exist.”
Catherynne M. Valente
This review contains spoilers.
So. The Boy Who Lost Fairyland is the fourth in Catherynne Valente’s Fairyland series, and in it we take a break from The Adventures of September to follow a young troll named Hawthorn. Hawthorn is a Changeling: swapped by Fairies for a human child and left in a cradle to troll (literally) the unknowing and unsuspecting human parents.
The first half of the book follows Hawthorn’s early years, as he grows up in a world which he feels should be magical and alive, but which remains tragically, emptily silent. He knows, deep down, that he’s a disappointment to his human parents, who would be happier if he were Normal, if he didn’t have preternaturally excellent handwriting at the age of five and say things like “Do you know that Redcaps – even the girl-caps! – have nine murderwives each who only appear when blood is spilt in the homehearth?”
Then, about halfway through the book, having met a fellow Changeling, Tamburlaine, he finds a way home into Fairyland, where the world really does talk to him as he knows instinctively it should; embarks upon a Quest to relieve Charlie Crunchcrab of having to be King of Fairyland; meets the human Changelings; and discovers how exploitative and rubbish the Fairies (released from long imprisonment by September in the previous book) really are.
In other words, The Boy Who Lost Fairyland feels very much like a novel of two halves, halves which are sadly mispaced. The first half, set in Chicago, is a lovely MG parable. The second half, full of magical Quests and returning old friends, feels horribly rushed: the leisured and layered build-up of the earlier books, the compelling narrative logic that makes Valente’s Fairyland feel like the Fairyland, is replaced by a random jumble of things that look like gold in shop lighting but turn to rubbish when you inspect them. Which is to say: both halves of the narrative are underserved by being sandwiched together in one short novel.
I think there’s also something a little troubling, ideologically speaking, going on here, which is not something I ever expected to say about this series. I said that the first half of the book reads like a little parable; and it does. More specifically, it reads like a parable about a non-neurotypical child growing up in a world that demands conformity; Hawthorn’s struggles are both charming and heartbreaking to read. Opposed to the pathologisation of Hawthorn’s difference in the second half of the narrative is the fetishisation by the Fairies of the human Changelings’ difference, as they demand these dispossessed human children to perform at their parties. In other words, the book explores cultural responses to what a society others.
What’s troubling about this is that the book’s solution to these issues simply involves returning the Changelings to their original worlds: that is, it suggests that the problem is with the othered, not the othering society. Valente’s solution effectively lets society off the hook for its treatment of difference. And the novel’s penultimate scene, which sees the human boy who was changed for Hawthorn restored to his Chicago home, simply feels like an erasure of non-neurotypical people: it suggests that “rightness” has been restored; with a Normal child in Hawthorn’s old household, the natural order is restored and everyone can get on with their lives without worrying about the spectre of difference.
For me, this ideological tiredness, this slump into unexamined narrative, feels like a symptom of a series that has gone on for too long. Much as I love Valente’s Fairyland, there is only so much that you can do with such a place without losing its wonder, without it becoming Just Another Fantasy World. I think the series had outrun the stories it could tell after the second book, to be honest. And while I’ll read the fifth and final book, I’ll also feel just a little sad about the unfulfilled promise of the early books: Here lies Fairyland. Here lies something wide and wonderful and inexhaustible. Here be dragons.