Friday, February 22, 2008

Neil Gaiman

by Neil Gaiman
Recommended Age: 12+

This is an excellent and very scary modern fairy tale by the award-winning, English-American author of Stardust and American Gods. Diana Wynne Jones compared it favorably to Alice in Wonderland, though the story that came to my mind (for some reason) was James Thurber’s The 13 Clocks. Witty, macabre, full of original imagery and a fast-paced plot and a plucky heroine, this could really be the best book I’ve read since Order of the Phoenix. [EDIT: I wrote this, obviously, before Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince was released.]

I am at an awful loss as to what to say about the story without ruining the whole thing for you. Let’s say, for starters, that it really has more in common with Alice’s Adventures Through the Looking Glass than in Wonderland. It takes place in the present day, but it has elements of classic fairy tale combined with a pinch of horror and a dash of fantasy.

One cold, boring summer, Coraline Jones finds herself wishing for a better deal than living with her inattentive parents in part of a house that is divided into flats. Dividing their flat from the one next to it is a door, opened by a cold black key, that only leads to a blank brick wall. Sometimes. But sometimes, it leads to another flat just like Coraline’s where another mother and father want Coraline to stay with them. For various ghastly reasons, their offer isn’t very tempting. But Coraline soon discovers that it will take an awful lot of courage, luck, and cleverness to get back to the home and the family where she belongs.

Here’s a tantatlizing tid-bit that I hope the author will forgive me for quoting...
“How do I know you’ll keep your word?” asked Coraline.

“I swear it,” said the other mother. “I swear it on my own mother’s grave.”

“Does she have a grave?” asked Coraline.

“Oh yes,” said the other mother. “I put her in there myself. And when I found her trying to crawl out, I put her back.”
by Neil Gaiman
Recommended Age: 15+

In Stardust, Neil Gaiman has proven that fairy tales are for grown-ups too. This is a beautiful, magical story. But it is also somewhere between PG-13 and R (for language, violence, and sexual content). I remember The Princess Bride being billed as “a hot fairy tale,” but this book lives up to the hype.

The story begins in the village of Wall, appropriately named. For just outside the village is the only gap in the wall between the ordinary world of Victorian England and the world of Faerie. And that gap is guarded, day and night, except for one night and one day every nine years when the Faerie folk set up a market and people from all over the world go to shop there.

Among the villagers is a youngster named Tristran Thorn, who does not know the full story of where he comes from, but who knows one thing: the fair Victoria is the most beautiful girl in the British Isles, if not the world. And in order to win her hand, he vows to find and bring her a star fallen to earth. A star that fell, wouldn’t you know, on the other side of the wall, in Faerie country.

It’s dangerous enough for a lad like Tristran to be abroad in the land of Faerie. But he hardly reckons on the star taking the form of a young woman who vows to make things as difficult as possible for the young man. Nor does he know about the evil witch queen who wants the star for reasons of her own...or the family of treacherous princes who are racing to find the star in order to win a throne.

It is another tightly plotted tale of adventure and fantasy by the author of Coraline and American Gods. Gaiman has a terrific sense of humor—a two-sentence letter near the end of the book was especially delightful. He also shows surprising compassion for some of the unlikeliest of characters. And though I had most of the clues figured out before the end of the story, it was still suspenseful to watch the characters work them out. And the tale is rich in irony, particularly surrounding the undoing of the Witch Queen.

I picked it up because I like a good, modern fairy tale. I kept reading it even though it was more adult than I expected, and by and by it became the sort of book that I couldn’t put down. Neil Gaiman seems to be a name to watch. [EDIT: Remember my review of the movie based on this book?]

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