I’ve been trying to work out exactly why this book didn't work for me the way the first one did. I think I’ve figured out the big reasons. But I think they’re all tied to the same core problem; which is that Valente seemed to realize that actual children were reading these books and so started watching what she said, the way some adults will watch what they say when children are listening. Unfortunately this led to a much weaker book.
The first thing that bothered me, or the first thing to bother me enough that I started to notice all the other little things that bothered me throughout my reading, was the ending. See September goes to Fairyland Below to stop her shadow Halloween from stealing all the shadows, and thus magic from Fairyland above. And as we learn about what shadows are, we learn that they are the source of our individual magic, and they are the place where we hide all those things that we hide from the world. So Halloween is a wilder, more magical part of September. And the way that September sees to stop Halloween is to join back up with her shadow, which would have nicely wrapped up the theme of accepting and embracing all the wild and dangerous parts of ourselves. However when it comes time to do the deed September doesn’t, and lets Halloween continue to rule Fairyland below. And yes, there is a theme here about individuals having freedom, except I never really saw the shadows as true individuals, they were reflections of the original person, and so that theme doesn’t quite hold up.
The second bit which bothered me is closely tied to the first, which is that Halloween continues to rule Fairyland below. Halloween is not a good queen, she practically destroyed a whole different kingdom in her selfish desire to have all the magic and so why is Halloween allowed to continue ruling while The Marquis wasn’t?-this is one of the big places where I see literary baby-talk, all of a sudden the actions of an individual don’t have consequences. Halloween stole other people’s shadows, and their magic, but because she was terrified and sorry, she’s allowed off the hook? No. And further, it goes to the shadow of Saturday, who pushed September in the Sea of Forgetfulness, that too is quickly forgiven. Though to her credit, Valente does make a point of holding him responsible for stealing kisses. And that second bit is nice, but it felt obvious and forced, particularly because pushing September into the sea was so quickly glossed over and forgiven.
Then there are the crows. In the first book there is a Key that forms from September’s green coat, and it has its own troubles trying to get back to September, but when it finally does arrive it becomes critically useful. Here we have a few crows who help September get to Fairyland and then show up once to do… nothing? Or almost nothing. Their point in the plot is so pointless that they were unnecessary except as fun little bits. To compare them to the Key in the first book just makes them look even more useless.
And finally, the book didn’t feel like there were real hardships to overcome. There is a moment in the first book where September has to face this horrible darkness by herself and overcome it. And she gets seriously hurt when she breaks her leg, and she makes a very large sacrifice in giving up her shadow to save a child. None of those themes are present here. September goes on a very nice adventure and meets very nice things, but nothing feels real or scary or even truly dangerous. Even when she’s pushed into the Sea of Forgetfulness there is no real danger, she already had all of her memories stored in a rock, and so nothing happened. It feels like literary baby-talk, removing the dangerous elements of a story because children are reading it.
Here’s the thing though. Even though I’ve basically trashed the book in this review, I want to state that I still really enjoyed it. There were passages that were so beautiful they made me want to cry, pure Valente at her best. But she’s watered herself down to tell a children’s story, something she didn’t do with the first novel. It’s a very good novel, and a fun read. It’s just when compared to the first one that it falls flat. The literary baby-talk I describe above is no different than many other successful and wonderful middlegrade novels. But not middlegrade novels that you remember years and years after you’ve read them. And that’s the big problem with the book. It’s good, it’s fun.