My Neil Gaiman love affair continues with Stardust. I'd had this pegged as one of his young adult books, and maybe it technically is - it's notably shorter and more linear than, say, American Gods - but the subject material is definitely adult. And a fairy tale. From Neil Gaiman - who would have thought it?
That said, while "Fairy tale for adults" could fairly be applied to the vast majority of Gaiman's creative work, the fact remains that his creations are really quite distinct. Sandman sprawled, but regularly circled back around to classical mythology. American Gods had a bit of everything, but mostly Norse and ancient religion. Stardust is firmly rooted in English folklore generally, and its fascination with Faerie in particular. I actually found myself thinking of "Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell" more than "Sandman" while reading this.
As with his other books, even the things Gaiman lifts from ancient tales feel wholly fresh. The Western rules about unicorns - the maiden's lap and all that - are hoary by now, but you'll still get a lump in your throat by the end of this particular unicorn's arc. Witches and their rules are a staple of fairy tales, but it's fair to give each witch their own personality, own motivations, and own personal rules, and Gaiman comes up with some really intriguing and clever ones here. His plotting is wickedly tight, with no wasted subplots.
Gaiman pulls off another trick, even more impressive in a book this short, of alluding to more than he includes. This is a skill mastered by Tokien, that master of reimagined Northern myths, and too rarely attempted now. The Fellowship of the Castle manages to be an impressive idea without ever really satisfying explanation of what, exactly, they are, or what they do. It's just the kind of thing that a reader could spend hours daydreaming about, and an ambitious young writer could grab on to for a short story or two for their own.
And, really, that's what Faerie is all about. The endless branching paths, the unmapped territory, the constant change. Gaiman can't claim to own this land any more than Spenser did, but he can make it sparkle once again.
This isn't the Gaiman you know, but it's a Gaiman worth knowing. Great authors can show a consistent skill even in disparate modes, and Stardust is well worth checking out.