Having brought The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making all the way home with the fabulous final volume of said series last year, Catherynne M. Valente is back with another magical middle-grade fantasy primed to delight younger and older readers alike.
The Glass Town Game takes its name from what is initially a bit of whimsy: a make-believe battle between twelve toy soldiers and whatever creeping evil its creative wee heroes conceive. Charlotte, Branwell, Emily, and Anne are all itty bitty Brontës, but together, if you please, you can call them the Bees. And when the Bees wish to escape the weight of the world—a world in which they’ve already lost their beloved mother and two of their sisters who got sick at School—they take to the room at the top of the stairs of their upstanding father’s parsonage:
It was hardly more than a drafty white closet, nestled like a secret between Papa’s room and Aunt Elizabeth’s. But the four children ruled over it as their sovereign kingdom. They decreed, once and for all, that no person taller than a hat-stand could disturb their territory, on penalty of not being spoken to for a week.
At play, the Bees are at least at peace, but when The Glass Town Game begins, the Beastliest Day—the day when Charlotte and Emily are to be sent away—is almost upon them.
“Though School had already devoured two of them, Papa was determined that his daughters should be educated. So that they could go into service, he said, so that they could become governesses, and produce an income of their own.” This was not so deplorable a goal in the early nineteenth century of the Brontës’ upbringing, but none of the Bees—excepting perhaps Branwell, the lone boy of the bunch—have anything nice to say about the Beastliest Day. Indeed, they dread it—not because it may be the death of them, as it was for Maria and Lizzie, their much-missed big sisters, but because it shall surely signal the last gasp of Glass Town.
As it happens, however, there’s one last adventure for the girls (and the bully of a boy they sometimes feel they’ve been burdened with) to have in the realm they created in the room at the top of the stairs, and it promises to be an adventure like none other—an adventure that beggars belief, even.
It begins when the Bees are saying their goodbyes at the train station: two are to stay and two are to go—but no, because what pulls up at the platform but a railway car with a star for a headlamp, apple-skin windows and a tiger’s tail at its terminus? And its destination? Why, where else would it be going but to Glass Town? To “the grandest town from here to Saturn, the most glorious country ever invented, home of the daring and the demanding, favourite haunt of the lawless and the beautiful, the wild glass jungle, the crystal frontier!” So says one of the twelve toy soldiers around which the Bees arrange their games, talking as if he and his squad-mates, who appear almost immediately, weren’t made of wood:
That smile that was so slow to come spread over [Charlotte’s] flushed and rosy face. Something was happening. Something straight out of a story. Something so astonishingly fantastic that no fanciful lie she’d ever told could top it.
Of course, where there’s soldiers, there’s soldiering, thus the grandest of all the Glass Town games the Bees have played opens with a war between Branwell’s favourite bad guy, Napoleon Bonaparte, and the Duke of Wellington: a war that threatens to break the Bees in much the same way as the Beastliest Day, I’m afraid.
At least here, in this whimsical world where leaders ride giant lions and luggage comes to life, there’s no danger of death:
Back home, anything could hurt them. Anything could sweep in suddenly and take the whole of everything away. School, Papa, marriages, fevers. But somehow, somehow, they’d slipped the trap of the real world and found their own place, the place they’d dreamed into life. And in that place, they were the ones who got to say who went and who stayed and who married and who didn’t and who lived and who died. No different now than in the playroom at the top of the stairs.
That’s thanks to a life-preserving potion that the aforementioned war is being fought for—a potion that Charlotte, the eldest of the sisters (and brother) Brontë, would very much like to bring back to the parsonage for purposes as plain as they are pained.
You see, as silly as The Glass Town Game often is, as fanciful and fleeting as it may frequently be, the beating heart of this book, and what gives us grounding in the midst of all of its marvellous madness, is the brutal truth of the Brontës’ youth. It’s “Mama, Maria, and Elizabeth in the ground,” and the surviving siblings struggling to say goodbye—both to what they’ve already lost and what, as adolescents on the edge of adulthood, they’re sure to lose.
Now I’m no expert on the Brontës. I can’t, as such, speak to the actual veracity of The Glass Town Game‘s band of protagonists, but I will say that their characterisation over the course of this story is as credible as it is consistent. Branwell, as the only boy, is desperate to act like a man, often to everyone’s detriment. Anne, meanwhile, may be the youngest of the bunch, but she takes more in than the rest of the Bees put together. Emily’s singular wish is to be free of the expectations everyone seems to have of her—and this is a wish Charlotte shares, but as the biggest Brontë, she also shoulders a sense of responsibility over her siblings. She and the other three are true, if not to the records themselves then to the fully-formed fictional selves that Valente presents, and there is some fine foreshadowing of all that in fact follows this frolic. Their ambitions as storytellers, say, “[hang] in the air like Christmas garlands,” not to speak of the tragic fact that none of the Bees will ever be 40.
But don’t let this discussion of loss and literary history give you the wrong idea. The Glass Town Game does deal with these delicate themes—and it can be absolutely heartbreaking; I found myself near tears at the beginning and then again at the end—but it’s also a bunch of fun from the moment the magic starts happening. Valente’s wordplay alone is likely to make your day, and she gives herself a great many opportunities to pun and make fun. As Charlotte explains, ‘”they haven’t got turns of phrase or colourful sayings or anything like that here, they’ve got the things themselves. Look!” She held up Bran’s blackened spoon, a strange, brown, papery thing made with what looked like old leaves. “Teaspoon.”‘
Catherynne M. Valente was a worthy winner of the Andre Norton Award when she took it home for The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making in 2010, and I’d be surprised—disappointed, honestly—if The Glass Town Game didn’t ensure her a spot on next year’s shortlist at least. It’s loving, lively, and linguistically lavish.
The Glass Town Game is available from Margaret K. McElderry Books.
Niall Alexander is an extra-curricular English teacher who reads and writes about all things weird and wonderful for The Speculative Scotsman, Strange Horizons, and Tor.com. He lives with about a bazillion books, his better half and a certain sleekit wee beastie in the central belt of bonnie Scotland.