Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Books Yay!: Stardust, by Neil Gaiman

Many of the fairy tales with which people in my age bracket grew up have not aged well. We grew up right in the Disney belt, where most of us got the "child friendly" adaptations of the more gory, scary cautionary tales-cum-child-control-method stories whence those fluffier versions came. I think Disney fairy tales assume that kids can't process more than a simple good/bad binary, where the Grimm fairy tales and their ilk took children more seriously and asked them to make more nuanced decisions. This is not to say that Disney retellings are devoid of realism or are somehow bad, but they lack a certain challenge that other tales do not. This may be a result of movies being a visual medium; there is more call to concern oneself with the visual aspects of a story in film, where a simple "beautiful princess" or "ugly witch" is ample in a spoken or written story, leaving the teller more room to concern themselves with plot.

Neil Gaiman's writing is the clear descendant of the Grimm fairy tale tradition, taking its readers seriously and creating magic that is logical and beautiful in its own unique way. This is true of all of his writing, but particularly so in his books for children and young adults. I have yet to read a Gaiman book that I did not love with my entire heart, and I hope that will always be true. Stardust is no exception. It is a beautiful tale that shows us that love is both ridiculous and gorgeous, and demonstrates that the great divide between good and evil is filled with tricksters, people who are nice enough, people with their own agendas, overly entitled, crafty, and many other delicately shaded personalities.

The weft of Stardust and the way it is created are particularly lovely, so I won't give you all the details of the plot - it's a sweet, short little book, so there's really no reason to skip this one - but the main plot line follows Tristan Thorn's hunt for a fallen star. He has set out for it after promising the loveliest girl in the town of Wall that he will catch it for her. Wall is surrounded by (surprise!) a wall that divides the town and the outside world of Fairie, and the two worlds rarely intermingle. When Tristan crosses over into Fairie, thing get complicated, and continue to do so for the rest of the book.

Though Stardust was specifically written in a pre-Tolkien mode, I cannot help but consider it to be Gaiman's Simarillion, where Tolkien showed us the structure and genesis of Middle-Earth. Gaiman's Sandman series deals explicitly with Fairie, but many of his other writings share the same kind of magical and social structures, even if the characters are not clearly passing in and out of Fairie. The plot of Stardust is complete and well-written, but for me, the plot paled in comparison with the richness of its setting. Not many authors can pull that off and wind up with a great book, but Gaiman has certainly done so here.

Crossposted at The Outpost 

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