If you asked who I thought the best living fantasy authors are today, I’d have a tough time deciding between George Martin and Neil Gaiman. I’d go with Martin when I’m in the mood for a medieval soap opera, equal parts a history of the War of the Roses, a Martin Scorsese film, and a phone book filled with typos. He writes entertaining material, but sometimes feels a little like reading soft-core porn. Neil Gaiman also displays human sexuality in his work, but at least when I read his books, I have the luxury of not feeling creepy for reading a 15-year-old’s lesbian love scene written by a man in his sixties who looks like Santa in a sailor hat. But if Martin draws from history, Gaiman draws from mythology, giving his works a distinctively more magical feeling to them.
Such is the case with Stardust, written to resemble an English/Celtic faerie romance. While modern fairy tales usually revolve around pixie dust and happy thoughts, benevolent, wish-granting godmothers and violent, blood-thirsty giants, traditional faerie myths are much more compact, giving the fae folk both magical skills and an overwhelming desire to skewer your spleen like a cheese cube on a toothpick. These folk live in faerie (the same way nuns live in nunneries and fish live in fisheries), on the other side of a wall guarded by the Night’s Watch a detail of humans from the village named–in the tradition of the English to boil both their language and their food down to a simple, flavorless, unappealing mass–Wall. In a lengthy prologue, Gaiman explains that faerie is far too dangerous for mortals, so humans are forcibly kept safe on their own side of the wall and discouraged from crossing over to pick fruit or to have faerie anchor babies, the latter of which sounds like an excellent idea to Dunstan Thorne, who crosses the wall at the one time every nine years when it’s permitted to do so, not because it becomes less dangerous, but because there’s money to be made.
Dunstan attends the famous 9-year Wall Market in faerie, and encounters a beautiful young woman selling baubles, chained to her post, a slave who isn’t paid and can’t leave until the moon loses her daughter in the same week when two Mondays come together, which are terms enforced by a centuries-old woman standing guard at the door–pretty much like the standard deal for modern Wal-Mart employees, except without the blue vest. The two of them steal off into an X-rated area of faerie, and months later a basket filled with an anchor baby is left on Dunstan’s doorstop. The majority of the book follows the faerie baby on his quest to discover that teenage love is a beautiful, magical thing akin to getting one’s fingernails ripped out with pliers while jabbing a pencil in one’s eye whilst one is entirely engulfed in flames. Young Tristan offers to cross into faerie to retrieve a falling star as a testament to his love for a girl who clearly would much rather be dating the captain of the football team. Fortunately for Tristan, the fallen star happens to be a beautiful girl. However, as far as anthropomorphic gas balls go, she’s pretty popular, and since faerie is a dangerous place, they find themselves pursued by enough conflict to fill out a 200-page novel filled with elaborate illustrations on every page.
Because of its style, Stardust would be an excellent gateway drug for the fanciful, imaginative adolescent or teenager to make the transition to the hard stuff–Medieval romances written in Middle-English. It has a nice blend of traditional and more modern faerie stories that would appeal to plenty of fantasy readers, and although it does bound into acknowledgement that mammals often enjoy fornication, the material is not so extreme that it would harm any but the most fragile and delicate of readers, the kind who would probably cry outrage at having to read about sextants and sackbuts.