Book Review: The Glass Town Game by Catherynne M. Valente
I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating: 3 of 5 stars
Genre: Fantasy, Middle Grade
Series: Stand Alone
Publisher: Margaret K. McElderry Books (September 5, 2017)
Length: 544 pages
As a relative newcomer to Catherynne M. Valente, having only read my first book by her earlier this year, I’ve grown increasingly curious about her other work especially her Middle Grade/Children’s projects. And so when the opportunity to read The Glass Town Game came to me, it sounded like it could be the perfect place to start.
Inspired by the fantastical stories and worlds created by the Brontë siblings as children, this novel follows Charlotte, Branwell, Emily, and Anne as they are spirited away to a land populated by the creatures and denizens of their own imagination. The book opens with the two oldest girls preparing to leave for Cowan Bridge School, a situation none of the youngsters are happy about, considering how their two older sisters had just recently died from a fever contracted from that very same place. As the only brother, Branwell is instructed to accompany them to the carriage station, while also bringing along Anne. In town, however, the children are distracted by the sights and sounds, and instead of continuing on to Cowan Bridge, they find themselves unexpectedly carried off on a magical train bound for another realm.
To the children’s surprise and excitement, the place they find themselves is Glass Town, a perfect replica of the world they have created in their imaginations during play sessions, complete with all their dolls and wooden toy soldiers come to life. Unfortunately though, as they soon find out, the rules they’ve come up with during their fun and games have also become binding, and innocent joy quickly turns to worry as the siblings begin to wonder if they’ll ever find their way home.
At the beginning of this review, I posited that The Glass Town Game might be a good jumping on point for readers curious about Valente’s Middle Grade books. However, after finishing this novel, I’ve started to rethink that initial assessment. The truth is, I’m having a hard time figuring out its audience. The publisher’s recommendation is for children between Grades 4-7, which ostensibly makes sense, considering the ages of the main characters as well as the silly and somewhat juvenile nature of their adventures. Kids who delight in wild, whimsical descriptions and situations (like Napoleon Bonaparte riding to war on a giant chicken, for example) will no doubt eat this one right up.
However, linguistically and stylistically, I feel that the writing in this book is actually geared towards readers much older than the ages recommended. The story’s pacing suggests this to me as well, with large swaths of the book that could have been cut down or scrapped completely, for they added no real substance to the plot. While adult and young adult readers might gain some appreciation for all this exposition by finding value in the character or relationship development, I have to wonder if the majority of Middle Grade readers will have the same amount of patience for these slower sections, not to mention how the double meanings behind many of the “punny” jokes might go over their heads.
Honestly, there is nothing intrinsically wrong with this book. Characters and storytelling are topnotch. The writing is as gorgeous and technically sound as it can be. At the end of the day, I think I liked The Glass Town Game. Still, as I went back and forth between thinking like an adult and thinking like a middle schooler while reading this, I just couldn’t figure out who would benefit the most. Other questions that went through my head were, would this book hold the average nine-year-old’s attention for 500+ pages? Or, would an adult fantasy reader be able to look past all the silliness? Because of this, the novel strikes me as a bit confused as to what it wants to accomplish, and that was what hurt it the most, ultimately affecting my overall enjoyment and rating.
But for fans of Catherynne M. Valente, I doubt they’d want to miss this. The mixed feelings I have for The Glass Town Game notwithstanding, I can’t fault the beautiful prose, the fanciful imagery, or the author’s magnificent talent for bringing the Brontë children and their world to life. This book is getting filed under “Interesting Experiences” for now, but I’ll definitely continue keeping my eye out for Valente’s future work.