As I stare at the pile of library books waiting to see me through the (first) Blizzard of 2015, my writing goals are now playing catch-up to my reading goal: 100 books before I wave goodbye to 2015. There is no set list – if I were to try to read just what is on the bookshelves in my room I would be well past 70 percent of my goal. And while I do want to make a point to read everything I have bought but never had a chance to open over the years, I also want to make a point of returning to the books and authors that made me fall in love with not just reading, but the art of storytelling. And this is how we came to Neil Gaiman’s Stardust.
Before going any further, though, I must confess that while I was sucked into Gaiman’s world years ago between Neverwhere and Good Omens (Note to self: revisit Discworld this year), I fell in love with the movie long before I decided to pick up the book. And while I just might love the movie a touch more (nothing can really compete with Robert De Niro in drag), both the book and the film win points for storytelling craftsmanship and artistry.
To hint at a fully developed otherworld without investing in Tolkienesque tomes of back-story and history is no easy feat; this is where we as readers see that to truly tell a good story, a writer must be both artistically and technically gifted. No amount of imagination can save a poorly written sentence; no clear, solely technical writing is going to inspire another generation of artists. Gaiman displays both immense artistic imagination and exceptional control over his writing. In fact, I would argue that the greatest fault in this story is that we as readers have not yet been given the chance to return to Wall, and see what lay beyond the confines of Tristran Thorn’s journey. I would then rebut that the beauty of this fairy story is that it is self-contained, a whole world, fairy-land recast in a few hundred pages, or a couple hours on the screen. He modernizes the fairy tale tradition. Gaiman plays with borders, with the rules of both the magical and the mortal realm, and builds place, time, and character in such a way that they serve as instantly recognizable, if distorted reflections of our own world. We empathize with Tristan, as he learns about his own character in two different worlds. His journey is ours, as much as is Yvaine’s, and the witch queen’s. By moving beyond flat symbols of certain virtue or evil, and building multi-dimensional characters who, good or bad, the reader can relate to, both the representative “real world” and Faerie become more complex. Faced with such complexities, we as readers are forced to admit that life cannot be simplified into good and bad, right and wrong, and that it can sometimes take more to make sense of the world around us. So the journey through the fairy tale belongs to us, as well as the characters; the lessons to learn are as applicable to the outside world, as they are applicable to the world bound between the lines on the page.
Fantasy is often polarizing; recognition of great skill should not be. A story that starts as a fantasy book and becomes its own, equally good story on screen is a hard thing to find, and for that reason alone is worth a look or two. As fantasy writing explodes across the internet it is also a rare thing to come across something that is beautiful and simple in its craftsmanship, and elegantly imagined. Gaiman wields a sentence with the innate understanding that the most words used do not make the most powerful or evocative image. Stardust is, if nothing else, a lesson in storytelling that all writers should learn from no matter what their genre of choice might be. And perhaps that might be another theme for this year of reading: books that teach a lesson in how to write. Until next time….