You might be asking yourself, “Nicole, why are you featuring Catherynne Valente’s The Glass Town Game on YA Interrobang? It’s not a YA book!” And you wouldn’t be wrong. While it is middle grade, when Simon & Schuster emailed asking if we wanted an excerpt because of potential crossover appeal, I jumped at the chance. I normally don’t, but I’ve already read The Glass Town Game and I loved it. And I think you might, too.
Inside a small Yorkshire parsonage, Charlotte, Branwell, Emily, and Anne Brontë have invented a game called Glass Town, where their toy soldiers fight Napoleon and no one dies. This make-believe land helps the four escape from a harsh reality: Charlotte and Emily are being sent away to a dangerous boarding school, a school they might not return from. But on this Beastliest Day, the day Anne and Branwell walk their sisters to the train station, something incredible happens: the train whisks them all away to a real Glass Town, and the children trade the moors for a wonderland all their own.
This is their Glass Town, exactly like they envisioned it… almost. They certainly never gave Napoleon a fire-breathing porcelain rooster instead of a horse. And their soldiers can die; wars are fought over the potion that raises the dead, a potion Anne would very much like to bring back to England. But when Anne and Branwell are kidnapped, Charlotte and Emily must find a way to save their siblings. Can two English girls stand against Napoleon’s armies, especially now that he has a new weapon from the real world? And if he escapes Glass Town, will England ever be safe again?
The Glass Town Game is available now. Take a peek at chapter four below before running to snag it from your local bookstore.
Text © 2017 by Catherynne M. Valente. Used by permission of Margaret K. McElderry Books/Simon & Schuster.
Four: To Glass Town, My Girl!
“Come on then, lovies. We haven’t got all day. Gawping’s free but seats cost. Tickets or run along!” Crashey barked with a businesslike snap in his voice.
“Oughtn’t you be in school anyhow?” asked Bravey, bending precisely in half at the waist to stare Charlotte down. His big oak nose butted up against her small, pointed one.
Emily shuddered. Charlotte did not.
“To . . . to hell with School,” Emily said softly, and got the very satisfying experience of hearing all her siblings gasp.
“Now, that’s what I like to hear!” crowed Crashey. “I like a girl with a little swear in her. Barely gradtriculated stickth form myself. Too much sap in me, my teachers said! Hasn’t got the smarts the good Lord gave a staircase. But I fooled them, didn’t I? Got brains coming out me ears, nose, and throat, I have. Pluslike, I can shoot true as the day you were born and my right arm could hold back the ocean so’s any one of you ladies could walk right through the world as dry as you please.” He flexed his burly muscles, in case they doubted him.
Branwell resolved immediately never to set foot in a classroom again. He squeezed his own skinny arm and hoped no one saw him do it.
“’S’not a matter of sap, Crash. It’s a matter of having nothing between your ears but squirrels.”
“Smart squirrels,” Crashey sniffed, cleaning out his ear with one stubby finger. “Genius squirrels! Nothing but the best!”
Bravey clapped his comrade’s shoulders heartily. “Now, little masters,” he said, “if you’ve got nothing in your hands, I’m afraid the Express is running late and we’ve got to get Brunty here back home where he belongs.” Bravey patted the enormous book that had only recently been the Magazine Man.
“Where does he belong?” asked Branwell breathlessly.
Bravey winked one wooden eye. “In prison, of course! The P-House! The clink! Quite a naughty little pupper, is our Brunty.”
“And where does the Express go?” said Emily, her voice high and strangled and tight, afraid of the answer and longing for it.
Crashey threw his brawny arms up into the air. “Why, to Glass Town, my girl! The grandest town from here to Saturn, the most glorious country ever invented, home of the daring and the demanding, favorite haunt of the lawless and the beautiful, the wild glass jungle, the crystal frontier! Where else would anyone want to go? Tickets, please! Tickets or NOTHING! Tickets or TOTAL DESPAIR! Tickets or BUST!”
Charlotte cleared her throat, and asked, in her most sensible voice, which she had copied from Aunt Elizabeth on her most sensible day: “How much does a ticket cost, sir?”
This brought Crashey and Bravey up short. They whispered to each other behind knotty pine hands, eyeballing the children through their huge fingers.
“A . . . million pounds?” offered Crashey uncertainly. “Each!” he blurted. Then, feeling a bit more confident, he smiled an enormous smile, showing outsized birch-bark teeth.
“That’s a respectable money number, so you have to salute it.” Bravey sagely nodded.
The four of them hesitated. Finally, Branwell shrugged and touched his fingers to his mess of dark hair in a rather smart salute. His sisters did likewise.
“May we have a moment to . . . to . . . consult our accounts?” Emily asked, and curtsied, because it seemed they were doing silly things like that now, so she might as well get a head start on the next nonsense.
“Only a moment, miss!” warned Bravey. “We are quite, quite behind schedule, and Chuck here won’t keep!”
The four of them huddled up behind a post.
Charlotte took the lead even though Bran stamped on her toes. Let me do it for once! Father trusted me with the money!
“Time for a Thump Parliament, I should say,” she whispered.
Branwell crossed his arms over his chest. His dark eyes fumed beneath dark brows. The Thump Parliament had been his idea, and he especially liked its rhyming with Rump Parliament, which was a thing that happened ages ago and got a King named Charlie’s head cut off. A Thump Parliament meant: All three of you had better do as I say or I shall thump you like a bad, naughty King. But as usual, the girls had taken it and run off and turned it into something much nicer and less fun, which was to say, any decision the four of them had to make together.
“I don’t believe they’ve got the first idea about proper English money, really,” Emily said, as quietly as she could.
“Of course they don’t!” Branwell snapped. He rolled his eyes. “Aren’t any of you going to say it?”
“Those are our soldiers!” cried Anne, too loud. They hushed her, and made a great deal more noise doing it than she had in the first place. “Our wooden soldiers! Crashey and Bravey! Ross and Perry will be hiding somewhere, and Gravey and Cheeky and Rogue and Goody and Naughty and Stumps! I can tell Crashey by the chunk knocked out of his leg from when Bran whacked him against the doorknob! But how could they be ours?”
“It might be a coincidence, Anne,” said Charlotte, biting the inside of her cheek. “Lots of people could be called Crashey. And . . . made of wood.”
Emily glared at her sister. “But it isn’t. Oh, other people might be called Crashey and Bravey, but they said Glass Town! Glass Town isn’t a real place. We made it up because you said it was ‘tedious’ to only set our games in countries that really existed. Stop being sensible! It’s ‘tedious’ to be sensible at a magic train and wooden men! Sensible won’t stick. Now, I say we have a very clear-cut moral problem in front of us. We can go to Cowan Bridge School and learn a lot of rot we already know and freeze and starve and probably die of consumption, or we can get on a fairy train driven by our Christmas presents.”
“My Christmas present,” insisted Bran, but no one paid any attention.
“I wish we could ask Papa,” fretted Anne. “Or Tabitha. She knows all manner of tales about the moors and pixies and kelpies and suchlike. She’ll know if it’s safe to ride a railway car with a tiger tail.”
The other three glanced back toward the end of the line of train cars. They hadn’t noticed. But Anne saw everything. A long, enormous, properly striped tiger’s tail hung off the caboose, flipping lazily from side to side like a bored house cat.
“They’d think we’d gone mad and we’d all have to sleep with a doctor instead of a doll,” Emily said.
Charlotte nodded. She kept nodding, as though she’d had a private conversation with herself and it had come out excellently. “It’s no question at all. I am going. Maria and Lizzie would have gone. They’d have gone anywhere rather than back to those horrible cold dormitories where any day you might get death for tea. I won’t let Cowan Bridge take me. Never. Never.”
Her words snagged on Emily’s heart. Maybe Charlotte did understand. Their faces all went cold and serious.
“Never,” whispered Emily.
“Never,” Charlotte said again.
“Never,” promised Anne.
“I want to take the train,” said Branwell. He had no fear of School. Papa taught his only son himself in his musty, wonderful study, and always would, for he trusted no one else with the job. Bran felt terribly sorry for his sisters, but it was hardly his fault that the world was so determined to make girls suffer a great deal more than boys. He hadn’t built the world. It had nothing to do with him. But the train. Branwell wanted the train to have everything to do with him.
Anne clasped and unclasped her hands. She whispered: “But won’t Papa be worried if we don’t come straight home? Won’t Aunt Elizabeth cry and cry until she dries out completely like a kipper?” She couldn’t bear to think of them waiting in the parlor, listening for footsteps that didn’t come. That sort of thing happened in ghost stories, and ghost stories always made her shake and shiver and sob.
Branwell snapped at his sister, annoyed to the teeth at having to consider such boring things. “We’ll just pop off for the day, Annie. We’ll catch the evening train home from Glass Town just like proper businessmen and no one will be the wiser.”
Emily and Charlotte would not catch the evening train. They would not just pop off for the day. Even if Glass Town was the Devil’s own cowshed, it was better than School. They’d already told him that. But Branwell never listened. They twisted their littlest fingers together and held their tongues.
“But where will we get a million pounds?” whined Anne. “Each?”
Charlotte reached up under the wrist of her glove and ripped off one of the dove-gray little buttons sewn there in a neat row. She remembered the Game of And they’d played around the laundry tub. And they’ll take us away to the Kingdom of Clothes where they use thimbles for shillings and buttons for pounds. . . .
“Come on now, all in,” she said. “Hurry up! Everyone put in—you too, Bran. Oh, get the one off your coat, then, you great idiot! Stop arguing! I’ll tell you what I’m doing once I’ve done it! Don’t you trust me?”
“No,” Bran grumbled. But he gave her one of his round black buttons anyway.
Charlotte marched back to the wooden soldiers and held out her hand: four buttons. One dove-gray, one burgundy, one round and black and shiny, one white and tiny as a seed. She took a deep breath and announced, in the voice she always used for her best and most outlandish lies: “There we are! One million pounds sterling for each of us!” She said it breezily, cheerfully, absentmindedly, as though it mattered so little she’d completely forgotten that she’d walked out of the washroom with four million pounds stuck to the bottom of her shoe. That’s how you had to do it. No one ever believed you if you got all sweaty and trembly and nervous, even if you were telling the truth.
Crashey and Bravey exchanged glances. Crashey picked over the buttons. He counted them, lost count between two and three, and started over again several times.
“Sold!” cried Bravey, satisfied at last. “Sold to the young lady in the gray dress! And if we keep a wee bit of a tip for ourselves, no one has to hear about it, wouldn’t you say? A little off the top keeps the bottom warm!”
Crashey reached under his red, rough-bark waistcoat and produced four shockingly large lemons with bits of branches and leaves still stuck onto them. He juggled them happily, and as the lemons came round, the wooden soldier tossed one to each of the children. The lemons smelled marvelous—fresh and sour and sweet and sharp and warm and so terribly, astonishingly bright! Charlotte hadn’t known something could smell bright. But their tickets did. They smelled like what you imagine gold will smell like, before you find out that gold smells rather of nothing. Emily, Anne, Charlotte, and Branwell read what was written in gleaming, graceful, green ink on the peels:
Glass Town Royal Express Main Line
South Angrian Loop
One (1) Both-Ways Ticket
Entitles the Bearer to Passage, Stashage, Gnashage, and Splashage
Does Not Entitle Bearer to an On-Time Arrival, a Smooth Arrival, Any Arrival at All, or Pleasant Conversation with Staff
Luggage Rights Strictly Observed
“These aren’t tickets!” spluttered Anne.
“Aren’t they?” Crashey said, raising a twiggy eyebrow. “But you gave us a million pounds each! So these must be tickets! Ipso facto quid pro quo ad hominem habeas porpoise and all that.”
“What does ‘passage, stashage, gnashage, and splashage’ mean?” Branwell said dubiously.
Bravey sighed. He felt around inside his coat and produced a hefty acorn cap, clicking it open like a pocket watch. He seemed very dissatisfied with what his watch told him. “A seat, one suitcase, a meal, and a drink, of course.”
“And luggage rights?” ventured Charlotte, holding tighter to her suitcase.
Bravey glared. “You are holding up the train, young sirs.”
“I’m a sir, they’re misses,” Bran insisted, quite horrified at the idea of his sisters being called by the noble, powerful name of sir when it did not belong to them.
“It’s all sirs in Glass Town!” Bravey yelled in exasperation. “Sirs as far as the eye can see!”
“ALL ABOARD!” called Crashey, who clearly loved yelling best of all. “LAST CALL!”
For a moment, hesitation grabbed hold of them. If they got on that train, anything could happen to them. Anything at all.
Charlotte stepped forward first and climbed the silver carriage stairs with only a little shake in her breath. Bravey checked her lemon extremely thoroughly, which rather annoyed her, as he’d just given it to them.
One by one, Emily, Anne, and Branwell followed their sister onto the train to Glass Town. The door shut behind them just as the long, sweet, owl-song whistle filled up the gray Yorkshire sky.