Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Stardust by Neil Gaiman

At the beginning of each semester, sometimes I poach books from classes that I’m not in. I KNOW. It is not a good thing, especially because then you end up in one of those poached book classes and find out you’re in trouble for the first assignment because it is impossible to get a copy of whatever you need to do it because some stranger from another class has bought the copy you were supposed to buy. But I poach books all. The. Time. Mostly because I am thinking, “Why am I not in this class where they are reading REALLY GOOD BOOKS and I am stuck with reading Jane Eyre for the third time, and oh hey, I have to buy TWO DIFFERENT VERSIONS of Wuthering Heights for two different classes in one semester. And over here some class is reading Stardust by Neil Gaiman.”

Stardust is one of those crossover books, shelved in Fiction and YA alternatively, sometimes with different covers marketed to their specific audiences. I think it was nominated for an Alex Award through YALSA, those awards that are for books that are typically written for adults, but that teens love to read. And I am going to go full disclosure, but there is not one book written by Neil Gaiman that I don’t own. Okay, maybe not his Duran Duran biography. But novels, picture books, short story collections, graphic novels, and collaborations? Ahem. They are part of the reason that I have so many bookshelves. I first picked up Stardust at a university bookstore about five years ago, because some lucky class was reading it for Intro to Prose Fiction.

I just re-read Stardust, and it’s such a funny feeling to read a book again after the movie adaptation has been out for a few years. The movie version of Stardust (from 2007) is really great, directed by Matthew Vaughn and written by Matthew Vaughn and Jane Goldman (Jonathan Ross’ wife!); it’s sort of an updated Princess Bride, where it’s quirky, meta, fantastical, funny, and heartbreaking. The book carries those same characteristics, but Gaiman’s writing is always so distinct and reading the novel is like walking through a series of beaded curtains, where pieces of characters and setting and story get stuck and hang back, dragging along behind you through the next one.

But the novelization of Stardust still came after the graphic novel that Gaiman first published with illustrations by Charles Vess (which means that it’s not just Fiction and YA that it gets shelved in, but also Graphic Novels at the bookstore), and I think that it’s my favorite version, out of the three: graphic novel, novelization, movie.  Vess’ illustrations really push it into the fairy tale genre, and the long prose paired with images takes it out of simple categorizations of shelving, making this a truly border-crossing story.

Stardust is about many characters in many places, but the character who ties it all together is Tristan Thorne, who promises a girl from his village, Victoria Forester, that he will cross the Wall that divides the town from the Faerie realms to retrieve a fallen star. Tristan doesn’t realize that he is not exactly of a straightforward birthright, since his father’s visit to the Faerie Market years before resulted in Tristan being left as a baby in a basket at his father’s doorstep. Now that he takes off across the Wall, his connections to that place become more real and his heritage apparent. Yvaine, the fallen star, is worth reading the story for – and Gaiman’s rendition of a fallen star as a beautiful young woman – and I think her introduction in the graphic novel and the novelization of Stardust is my favorite way to meet her.

Meanwhile, there are other storylines taking place in the background, forming the present action and altering Tristan’s course. One of my favorite storylines is that of the sons of the eighty-first Lord of Stormhold in Faerie, who is about to die and has the problem of passing his crown to one of his remaining sons (by this point, it seems, there should only be one son remaining, having edged out the rest of the competition). Brothers Secundus, Quintus, Quartus and Sextus are already dead, and their shades stand as “unmoving, grey figures, insubstantial and silent,” waiting in limbo for the next Lord of Stormhold to come into power. This passage comes from the graphic novel, and I really love Gaiman’s writing and imagination and invention, especially when it appears so straightforward, but underlain with so much other invented history and past, already woven together in his own head, so that something complex and fantastical can appear on the page for the reader:

Three of his sons remained alive: Primus, Tertius and Septimus. They stood, solidly, uncomfortable, on the left of the chamber, shifting from foot to foot, scratching their cheeks and noses, as if they were shamed by the silent repose of their dead brothers. They did not glance across the room towards their dead brothers, acting, as best they could, as if they and their father were the only ones in that cold room, where the windows were huge holes in the granite and the cold winds blew through them. Whether this is because they could not see their dead brothers, or because, having murdered them (one apiece, but Septimus had killed both Quintus and Sextus, poisoning the former with a dish of spiced eels while, rejecting artifice for efficiency and gravity, simply pushing Sextus off a precipice one night, as they were admiring a lightning-storm far below them), they chose to ignore them, scared of guilt, or revelation, or ghosts, their father did not know.

Oh, does Neil Gaiman not get enough love around here? I’ll make sure to put up a review of The Graveyard Book soon, because that is one of his books that really shouldn’t be missed. But Stardust, for it’s incredible range of interpretation of an original fairy tale story, is a great place to start with, and you can really jump into any of the three mediums, depending just exactly what you're in the mood for. And believe me, by the end of whichever one you choose, it'll be hard to resist picking up the other versions, just to see the intricacies of interpretation and adaptation.

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