Stardust

by Neil Gaiman

 

Fantasy is an interesting genre. When most people think of fantasy, they seem to think of Lord of the Rings and its derivatives–Game of Thrones, Wheel of Time, even World of Warcraft. Modern fantasy seems to be all about constructing a fiction world and populating it with “realistic” characters. Neil Gaiman does fantasy a little differently.

I hadn’t even heard of Neil Gaiman before around 2012, when my friend drunkenly told me that American Gods was one of his favorite books. I took his advice. I then read another of his books, then bought a couple more, and finally got around to reading Stardust this year. While Gaiman has plenty more out there that I haven’t read, I’m familiar enough with his style that I’m beginning to understand what he’s trying to do. I think.

In my ‘umble opinion, Gaiman cares more about creating the feel of a fairy tale than building a gritty world for his characters to inhabit. It’s the feeling that yes, there’s a real world, but you have only to draw back a curtain to find things that are absolutely fantastical. Fairy tales blur the lines between reality and fiction, either by setting their stories in a mythical past–as in the Arthurian legends, Greek epics, Star Wars, or pretty much any culture’s folklore–or by playing to the idea that the world is a big, sometimes scary, but inherently magical place. See: Grimm fairy tales, Disney movies, X-Men, Jurassic Park. These stories, these fairy tales, seem to say: “Magic is real, or at least it was real in the past. And maybe someday it will be real again.”

It’s a bit of a fine line to draw, but I think it’s tangible when you actually start reading it. Let’s take for example, oh I don’t know, Stardust. This is clearly a fantasy novel but, like American Gods and The Ocean at the End of the Lane, this story takes place in our world. Or at least, that’s where our story begins. Tristran Thorn lives in the English town of Wall, a town named for the literal barrier between the known world and the magical land of Faerie. On a whim, a stupid promise to a girl he thinks he loves, he sets off beyond the wall to catch a falling star.

Let’s pause for a second and consider why Gaiman sets it up this way. As a resident of Wall, Tristran is vaguely aware that there’s a “second” world outside of England, but he’s about as aware of it as an ancient African would be of India. Sure, it probably exists, but if you’re never going there, what’s the difference? It’s interesting to contemplate, or to tell stories about, but it’s completely irrelevant to your life. When the foolish young man makes his promise to do the unthinkable, but not the impossible, he’s forgoing all of the knowledge and certainty about what his life would have become, and stepping into a mystery. Would the story be as effective if Tristran was living in Faerie to begin with? I’d say no. StardustTaking a young man on the edge of reality, both literally (physically living at the border with Faerie) and figuratively (moving from childhood into adulthood), gives him one chance to do the unthinkable before he finds his permanent place in the world.

The structure of the story thus established, I think it’s fair to say that the book went in some pretty unexpected directions with its plot. Tristran comes across plenty of danger in Faerie, but some of it is so unexpected that you might be left scratching your head. In addition to Tristran’s admirable mission to secure the star, Gaiman introduces a good variety of subplots involving witches, feuding brothers, and all sorts of magical creatures and settings. Though Tristran’s story is relatively straightforward, Stardust proves that Neil Gaiman isn’t necessarily interested in writing traditional fairy tales.

And of course, just because Gaiman writes fairy tales, that doesn’t mean we always get a happily-ever-after. Like Tolkien, I think Gaiman understands that a fairy tale should end not with possibility, but with possibility lost. Not every plot thread ends on a high note. While the book encourages its readers to have big dreams for the characters, many of these hopes will be dashed by the end. A young man can’t stay young forever, and the magic that allowed him to do the unthinkable will not repeat itself. Such is the nature of magic.

As an aside, I think the irony of Tolkien’s influence is that while yes, he did succeed in creating big, beautiful worlds, filled with unique characters and cultures, he never lost sight of what he was really doing. He was inventing myth out of whole cloth, creating a bible of stories for a distant past that we all know never actually existed. His works might have often contained more detail than those of the Brothers Grimm, but they were meant to accomplish a similar goal. I would posit that modern fantasy’s major flaw is its disregard for the myth-making at the core of the genre. Treating these stories as legend, rather than history, might reintroduce some of the magic that they largely seem to lack. (The Nerdwriter makes a similar point, though he goes in a somewhat different direction with it.)

A second aside: Since this post went further than I expected into how myths are made and stories told, I just want to take the time to disavow JJ Abrams’ take on the “mystery box.” His view of the mystery box originates, I think, in the idea of the fairy tale, and I don’t think he’s too far off the mark. But Abrams seems concerned about the effect of the mystery box on the audience: what we think is in the box, what we want to be in the box, and what we’re afraid is in the box. Fairy tales concern themselves more with the effect of the “mystery box” on the characters. Abrams talks about the mystery of Princess Leia, but that mystery would be meaningless if it wasn’t for Luke’s interest in finding out who she was. Rey from The Force Awakens, on the other hand, is a classic Abrams-style mystery box. The mystery surrounding her serves no purpose in the movie, but Abrams just can’t help himself; rather than leave some things unknown, he has to stamp his work with question marks, just in case we don’t find it interesting enough on its own.

While much of Gaiman’s work is indisputably fantasy, Stardust doesn’t pretend to be anything other than a literal Faerie tale. I readily admit that sometimes the plot became a bit too weird for me, but I can’t say it wasn’t unique, or that it didn’t spark that feeling of wonder that fiction so often lacks.

The Chronicles of Prydain

by Lloyd Alexander

 

I loved these books as a kid. I don’t always regress towards children’s books, but sometimes I tire of more “adult” fare, or I just need to go back and enjoy something I’ve already read. This is one of those times. Ironically enough, though, it took me way longer to finish this children’s series than, say, a Wheel of Time entry, despite the comparative brevity. Why? I hate to say it, but I think some of the magic might be lost on a twenty-five-year-old. Maybe it’s because I’ve been retrained by heavier tomes like Wheel, but it was hard to get into a fantasy that seemed to just zip along, moving from scene to scene without giving the story a chance to rest. A longer book isn’t always a better book, but it’s important to let tension build awhile before resolving a conflict.

The two hundred or so pages of each of the five books in the series have our hero Taran embarking on an adventure, usually to save his beloved Prydain from the evil Arawn Death-Lord or one of his buddies. At the start, Taran is just some young gun- a hot-headed Assistant Pig-Keeper- but he grows in each novel, as a young man and a leader. The Chronicles of PrydainThe books all follow the classic quest structure; while each has a different feel, and though the object of the quest changes, they all fall into that general category.

The installment I enjoyed most, Taran Wanderer, has Taran riding around the countryside in search of knowledge; he sets out to learn where he comes from, and when he fails to find a satisfying answer, he looks for other ways to define his identity. As he travels from village to village, learning new crafts and ways of life, the book becomes more like a parable or a fable than an adventure novel. This tonal shift, along with the slower pace and the lower stakes, really sets the fourth book apart from the rest.

At some point I realized that I was reading these books not in isolation, but as part of the larger fantasy canon. I’ve read a good bit of the stuff by now, and pretty early on in The Book of Three I found myself comparing aspects of the series to other famous fantasies, both earlier and later. Alexander supposedly based the Prydain series on Welsh mythology, which I know nothing about, but it’s impossible to miss the influence of fantasy epics like The Lord of the Rings and The Once and Future King on these books. Likewise, it was clear to me that Alexander inspired authors like J.K. Rowling and Robert Jordan to create their famous fantasy series. It reminded me of Neil Gaiman, asked about the similarities between Rowling’s Harry Potter and one of his own characters, responding, “I thought we were both just stealing from T.H. White.” There are countless examples of this across the years, and it’s fun to try to pick out what came from where.

An unfortunate result of a genre that’s constantly borrowing from itself, however, is that the stories might not seem as fresh as they did the first time you read them. I felt that there was nothing in Prydain that wasn’t done in a more original way in another fantasy book or series. Though this obviously isn’t really Alexander’s fault, it took away from what was clearly supposed to be an exciting narrative. I ended the series unable to recall what excited me so much about it in the first place.

No, Alexander’s Prydain novels don’t hold up too well as an adult, not as well as, say, The Golden Compass. But they’re meant for children, so whatever.

The Ocean at the End of the Lane

by Neil Gaiman

 

I don’t really know what Gaiman meant to say with this book. I’ve thought about it, and I’ve got some ideas. But keep in mind that I know literally nothing.

I think that The Ocean at the End of the Lane is about the connections between who we are as children and who we grow up to be. The book starts with a man- our narrator- coming back to his childhood home, and then visiting his friend Lettie Hempstock’s house down the street, though she has long since moved away. From there, he starts reminiscing about his life at age seven, when his family had just moved into the neighborhood.

As in the only other Gaiman book I’ve read, American Gods, there are fantasy elements, but Gaiman’s gift is his ability to construct two discrete worlds, one real and one fantastic, and then blur the lines between them. In the case of Ocean, our narrator remembers many things that could not have been real, namely a monster that comes into his life first as a worm in his foot and subsequently in the form of his family’s new housekeeper, Ursula Monkton. Housekeepers are real, but they’re not foot-worms. The Ocean at the End of the LaneSo I’m guessing there’s something else going on here. Gaiman heavily implies that the narrator’s memory is compensating for something in his past, filling in gaps or erasing unwanted events. He leaves open the question, though, of whether the magic was made up in a seven-year-old’s imagination to make life seem less horrible, or whether the magic was real, only to be forgotten by a more world-weary adult.

Beyond questioning the narrator’s memory, Gaiman invites us to compare his childhood and adulthood personalities. Throughout each, he’s a stoic; taking bad news well, not expecting too much, and describing the events of his life with little or no emotion. Kid or adult, he seems unable to relate to most people, and has a hard time making friends. But the narrator’s childhood shows another side of his personality, perhaps one that he still retains; he is capable of strong feeling. This is shown both in his love for his new friend, Lettie, and his utter hatred for Ursula Monkton. As a child, he sometimes lets his emotions get the better of him, often exposing him to potential dangers. It makes one wonder whether he consciously chose, as he grew up, to shed his emotion and become a person who couldn’t be hurt by others. We never delve too deeply into the narrator’s adult life, so it’s kind of up in the air.

I think when it comes down to it, The Ocean at the End of the Lane tells us that childhood is more important- and more real- than we’d often like to believe. Whether or not we interpret the magical events as real, the narrator’s memories of Lettie Hempstock and Ursula Monkton had a real impact on his life, helping to create the person he grew up to be. He may have concocted a make-believe back story for straightforward events, but that doesn’t mean that he didn’t understand or doesn’t remember what ‘actually’ happened. The events of the novel could be chalked up to a child’s imagination, but Gaiman indicates that just because something is imaginary, that doesn’t make it irrelevant.

Ocean benefits from Gaiman’s simple and straightforward writing, and I mean that in a good way. Whether describing his disappointing seventh birthday party, or the appearance of a huge monster in the sky, the narrative never gets derailed. Gaiman really doesn’t need or want to distract you from the story in the narrator’s head; this story stands on its own. Frilly language or elaborate subplots would blunt the sharp focus that makes the book so powerful.

I started this blog partially thinking that my ‘reviews’ would reflect what I would tell someone who was asking me about a book. When it comes to Ocean, I was somewhat at a loss as to what I would say. I don’t want to give away too much of the plot, but I want to give you a sense of what the book is like and what it’s about. I think that the easiest advice would be to just read the book; it’s short and simple, not a huge commitment. So yeah, as long as you’re not completely allergic to fantasy, I’d just say go for it.

Gaiman’s written a really good novel here. Simpler than American Gods, and possibly better. Check it out for yourself.

American Gods

by Neil Gaiman

 

A lot of people think religion is on the decline in the United States; that we brought our gods with us and are now casting them aside. Neil Gaiman thinks we’re simply trading old gods for new. Instead of worshiping Scandinavian and African and Indian gods, we worship the gods of television and the internet and drugs and sex. Instead of sacrificing in Odin’s name, we make blood sacrifices to the gods of highways and railroads. Our hero, Shadow, is introduced to this reality immediately after his parole from prison, entering the service of a man called Mr. Wednesday.

You might suppose that this is a combination of fantasy and Elmore Leonard-type crime fiction. It is, in a way, but it’s hard to explain how it actually reads. There are parts of the book that focus on Shadow trying to adjust to a ‘normal’ lifestyle, and there are parts that seem to have no relation to the real world. No matter what’s going on, though, both of these elements are present throughout the novel, and are pretty seamlessly woven into the story.

It helps, of course, that Gaiman can write. I tend to hate the stoic tough guy character, but Shadow is given depth that I’ve rarely seen in crime fiction. One of my favorite passages from the book features Shadow deciding to take a walk by himself, despite the ridiculously cold weather. Minute by minute he realizes that he underestimated the danger, or perhaps he overestimated his ability to tolerate the cold, and his mild annoyance is slowly replaced with panic. This human moment could’ve taken place in a world without magic, but it fits perfectly with Shadow’s character and Gaiman’s writing style.

I should add that, in addition to fitting in with the crime and fantasy genres, American Gods is a novel about the open road, which seems to be a American Godsuniquely American theme. I was shocked to find out that Gaiman’s a European; he really seems to understand American localities and cultural quirks. Shadow bounces all over the country on what can only be described as road trips, and Gaiman perfectly captures the freedom, the fatigue, and the anxiety that come with them. The journey to Cairo, Illinois has all of these things, as Shadow starts out alone and is joined by a hitchhiker named Sammi (sans smiley face over the ‘i’). What starts as an awkward situation (I think 70% of hitchhikers end up murdered by psychopaths) ends up with both characters recognizing one another as a kindred spirit, even if they don’t quite understand each other.

The road is just a part of what makes this book so ‘American,’ though. I mean, yea, there’s the title. American Gods. Good look. But each of the characters has a quintessentially American background. Shadow’s family history is never revealed, and he seems to not worry about the past or even the future all that much. All the gods in the book came from other lands, though many admit (or complain, depending on how you look at it) that America is not a good place for gods. I dunno how to explain, but I don’t think it could’ve been the same story if it had been set anywhere else.

Admittedly, American Gods has a weird plot and a weird structure, but Gaiman really makes it work. He’s able to introduce Shadow and the world of the gods simultaneously, and he also interrupts the narrative with occasional ‘Coming to America’ vignettes. The story of African twins who are sold into slavery in America- which has nothing to do with the rest of the narrative- was incredible to read. It might not contribute to the plot of the novel, per se, but it definitely added to its feel.

By the end of the book I was totally drawn into this world. Despite the side stories, there is no part of Gods that felt extraneous to me. I was completely satisfied by the conclusion, and every time i thought that a loose end hadn’t been tied off, or that a subplot was left unexplored, Gaiman settled it, in a way that felt completely natural. He wrapped it up about as well as any book I’ve ever read. Almost every character, living, dead, or somewhere in between, finds his or her resolution.

This is one of the most unique books I’ve ever read, in plot and in style. Though the whole idea may seem a bit ridiculous for an adult novel (not that kind of adult novel), I can almost guarantee that you would enjoy American Gods, even if you’re not all that into crime or fantasy.