A new entry in Catherynne M. Valente’s Fairyland series is always welcome, especially after the slight letdown of the last book, The Girl who Soared Over Fairyland and Cut the Moon in Two. The latest installment, The Boy who Lost Fairyland, takes a break from following September’s adventures and focuses on Hawthorne, a troll changeling named Thomas by his human parents, who is convinced that he does not belong in the human world of Chicago but Somewhere Else. The novel traces his friendship with Tamburlaine, a mysterious and secretive girl with a love of painting and trees; her sensitive pet gramophone who can only speak through the records it plays; and his bombastic and exclamatory pet wombat made of yarn as they discover their personal forms of magic as well as an entry back into the world of their births, Fairyland. They make new friends, both new and familiar to the reader, receive new pairs of special shoes, get kidnapped, and save King Crunchcrab with the help of some of our favorite characters from the series.
Valente’s prose is as charming, whimsical, and sophisticated as ever, and the events and scenarios she dreams up make even one with a notoriously over-active imagination jealous of her creativity. Changing the perspective of the series from September to a new character is a smart choice. The fourth book in a series is one that can either be fresh or bogged down, and Valente’s switching of gears leads to a new outlook on both Fairyland and the series as a whole. She starts of by noting that she has said that things have to be said three times to be true, and now, by telling things a fourth time, she will be turning them on their head. That is exactly what happens with her new protagonist and his adventures, and this, along with her extended (multi-book) metaphor of the world(s) as a house, yields an exciting, engaging, and mostly satisfying read.
Additionally, Valente has a knack for writing emotion, whether it is the frustrations of a small child, the despair of a parent upon losing a child, or the ache of homesickness in someone used to a life on the road. Despite the colorful whimsy of Valente’s ever growing plot, her characters and stories are always rooted in very real and human emotion.
My main quibble is the pacing. Valente luxuriates in her story until the last 40 pages when suddenly it becomes clear that a lot must happen in a very short period of time. Keep in mind that these are young reader to middle grade books, so 40 pages is even less when you take into account the larger font and gorgeous illustrations by Ana Juan that grace the beginning of each chapter. Honestly, it felt a little like her publisher had given her a page limit, and she realized too late that she needed to wrap it up. As a result, the ending feels a bit too neat and tied up with a bow. Additionally, Hawthorne is given a baseball as a talisman before beginning his initial journey as a changeling to the human world, and Valente repeatedly endows this baseball with great importance. However, at some point the baseball disappears just like that and is no longer a key element of the narrative. It feels almost perfunctory and is a bit of a let down.
While not perfect, The Boy who Lost Fairyland is a move in the right direction, back toward the splendor of her first book in the series, The Girl who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making. Fans of the series will be pleased to see the continuing adventures of the denizens of Fairyland, and new readers will find a workable entry point into the series (though, of course, it’s always best to start at the beginning). This is the kind of intelligent and creative writing that young readers crave, and Valente is establishing herself as a writer to remember.