Stardust by Neil Gaiman and illustrated by Charles Vess
Vertigo, 1997, Softcover, 212 pp, $19.99
So. Great movie out, I figure people'll want to know whether the book is worth
(Y'know, it really, really is.)
First things first, though: if at all possible, do yourself a favor and skip the uber-cheesy "Now a Major Motion Picture!" version of the book with the cornball
photo-cover and tragically distinct lack of internal illustrations. The original
collection of this serialized-illustrated-novella-distributed-in-comicbook-format is
so the way to go. It's full full full of amazing paintings and sketches by our boy
Charles Vess, merely one of the best fantasy artists around.
(Admittedly, he does tend to draw some rather odd-lookin' faces every now and
again, but I'm sure you'll forgive him simply because the rest of his art is so
friggin' excellent. I'm a not-terrible painter myself, and I get nauseatingly jealous
of the guy; I'm never sure whether to curse him or bless him. Totally confusing.)
Anyway, I'm sure you all know the story by now: Tristran is a goofy but well-meaning young man trying to win the heart of a girl who is, quite simply, a spoiled
ol' witch-with-a-B. In the manner of well-meaning but incurably naive young men,
Tristran doesn't seem to notice this rather crucial bit of information, and sets off
from the Village of Wall to venture deep into the heart of Faerie in order to return
with a piece of a fallen star and prove that he really is a worthwhile sort of chap to
get hitched to.
The problem, of course, is that in the land of Faerie, stars aren't just stars --
they're people. Beautiful young women, in this case. (Terrible predicament, that.)
Naturally, there are all manner of weird Gaiman-y subplots and characters; the
bickering princes who need the amulet the star wears in order to gain the throne,
the witches that want the star for themselves in order to use its power to keep their
youth, the little man Tristran meets in the forest who appears homespun but is
really quite wise, the Tori Amos-like Nymph tree, etc. etc. (I wish there had been
more time in the movie for some of these guys, but the movie worked just as well
without them, which left space for De Niro in drag -- always a good time.)
However, the real fun of the book comes from the way it subverts the usual fairy-tale conventions while simultaneously being a really good example of the genre.
This has the potential be rife with cliche, but as always, Gaiman brings his
charmingly skewed view to things. Vess, too, is at the top of his form, with
meticulously-detailed illustrations that perfectly capture and build upon the silly-yet-serious mood of the story. (Alan Lee and Brian and Wendy Froud are listed in
the dedication, as well they should be.)
And in the end, it's secretly a wise little nugget of a story about how we can fall in
love with the wrong person and never know it until someone shows us the error of
See the movie, use it as an excuse to read the book (I know I did!),
compare/contrast, and have your day brightened considerably.
Jumper: Griffin's Story by Steven Gould
Tor Books, 2007, Hardcover, 286 pp, $24.95
Get your high-speed shutters ready, people -- this book is blindingly fast.
Griffin is born with the rather mysterious ability to jump -- teleport -- anywhere
he's been. Thing is, there are a bunch of scary people called paladins who are
killing Jumpers, and they're quickly triangulating his position. The book is
basically one long globe-trotting thrillride, and simply a hell of a lot of fun.
What really makes the book work is this weird combination of giddy exuberance
and smart-mouthed humor mixed with real pathos and drama.
We tag along with Griff as his whirlwind life leads him on a constant stream of
adventure: he narrowly escapes death a couple times in the first few chapters and
does so pretty much continuously throughout the book. He's taken in by
benevolent Mexicans, travels to practically every continent, builds a secret
underground lair called The Hole, has cheerful (and then some not so cheerful) sex,
and draws pictures of all the famous landmarks wherever he jumps. As the body-count of Griff's friends and family pile up, though, he gradually turns darker and
darker, until the book becomes an exercise in Vengeance of the Just. Despite the
humor interspersed throughout, by the end of the book there are some tough moral
problems that need working out, and it builds to a truly tragic climax that forces
Griff to understand, to know exactly where the blame for all the violence lies on
him and where it is upon those who hunt him.
And it works. Gould is a complete master at making even the absurd premise
completely real. He fills the book with such quirky charm that it was simply
impossible to put down. His writing is terse and no-nonsense, and there was never
any problem with suspension of belief, because all the characters were smart and
behaved in believable ways.
In fact, the only real flaw I can see in the book is the completely maddening lack of
an explanation given as to the motivation of the paladins. Because I'm not really
sure what Gould was trying to say (or even whether or not the whole thing was just
him giving up on trying to make the plot make sense) this is probably heading
merrily into speculation-land, but in any case, what I think he might have been
trying to get at was this:
The paladins would presumably not attack Griff and his family and people like him
for no reason. Perhaps in the distant past, they felt like they were wronged by
Jumpers, and so they feel justified even when they kill them as children. In turn,
the Jumpers retaliate in kind, as evidenced by Griff's evolution from innocent kid
to vigilante-justice-man. It ends up being a sort of political commentary on what
happens when people refuse to communicate with each other and so exacerbate
volatile situations and provoke others into irreversible violence.
Or not. I don't really mind, in the end, if there was no grand "meaning." Look, the
book isn't going to revolutionize the field of science fiction, but y'know, I read the
thing in one sitting and enjoyed every minute of it. That counts for a lot.
The Princess and the Hound by Mette Ivie Harrison
EOS, 2007, Hardcover, 410 pp, $17.99
The title and dustjacket art for this book are deeply misleading. You'd think it was
one of those terrible, patronizing, books "for girls," pandering to the silly
stereotype that girls only like stories with horsies and doggies and damsels in
distress and boys can't handle anything with a whiff of emotional nuance.
Instead, it's one of the most affecting coming-of-age novels I've ever read.
Indeed, the misdirection goes further. Rather than focusing solely on the Princess
and the Hound, the book actually belongs to Prince George, the young man who
comes to love them both:
In Kendel, the people with Animal Magic are feared and hated for their mystical
brotherhood with the beasts in the wood. Prince George, like his mother before
him, is forced into keeping his own Animal Magic hidden from the very people he
will one day rule.
He tells no one of his secret -- until he meets Beatrice, the Princess of a rival
kingdom and the one he has been betrothed to in order to keep the peace. She is a
strange girl, seemingly cold and unsentimental, accompanied always by her gentle-yet-wild dog Marit -- and perhaps she is the one girl George could hope to marry
for love as well as duty.
When George's father takes ill, a twisted web of dark magic and revenge is
revealed, and George and Beatrice -- and Marit -- are drawn together in strange
and moving ways.
This is a book about the ties that bind -- friends, lovers, families. I saw almost
every plot twist coming, but this means that I'm a decent guesser, not that the book
is somehow cliche or predictable. It doesn't matter, as the book doesn't rely on
gimmicks or trickery. Instead, its power lies in the complexity and honesty of the
web of subtle relationships Harrison builds up. The fantasy world is woven into the
background and is used mostly as an unusual setting; we're not in Tolkien-land,
with endless genealogies and mythologies -- everything is strictly related to the
plot. It's not a particularly interesting world in itself, because that's not the point.
It's there to provide the characters with the necessary distance from our present-day that they are free to be earnest in their nobility.
And noble they are. George is amazingly human, flawed while remaining strong --
if he cannot be honest and good, or at least attempt to be, he cannot remain
himself. And yet he cannot see this about his own character, how he gradually
becomes a worthy man. He is what he chooses to make himself into, and I'm awed
and inspired by his goodness. His greatness.
In particular, I'm struck by the reverence he shows for the process of
reconciliation. So much fiction relies on an us-against-them morality that it's
become truly refreshing to read something more honest and ambiguous. George
tries his level best to find solutions that are fair to all sides -- not cynically, to gain
favor, but because that is the only way he knows how to remain himself, remain
honest and honorable in his own eyes. We have to try for genuine goodness even
when -- especially when -- no one else is watching.
And true to real life, to the ways that humans band together to invent language so
that they might transmit experience, George learns how to be great by
remembering the tales his mother told when she was alive, for there is a gentle
wisdom to be found in the telling of stories, in the generation-spanning tools made
of sound that she uses to teach him how to live. We hear them too: there is pain
and death and longing and sorrow, yes, but the moral universe feels . . . right. It
rings true, and while I read the stories within stories, I simply felt good. The
worlds of words felt ancient and deep.
Harrison's writing itself is restrained, and yet there is a surging undercurrent of
passion underneath it all. The language of the story is so bleakly, heartbreakingly
plain that I'm afraid some people will miss how beautiful and elegant it is in the
sheer simplicity and clarity of prose.
For this is a dark love story that explores hard questions, and it deserves to be read
almost especially by the people who mistakenly think that they will find nothing of
value in it.
The young lovers are chaste and their relationship muted by their tragic
circumstances, but it's all the more romantic and even almost erotic for all that.
They are as children yet, and then suddenly grown, on that cusp between innocence
and adult responsibility. They learn to truly love each other only after their
commitment is assured, pulling close and then apart again, a tension and spark that
is true and painful as life. There is a sadness to their relationship, that glorious
melancholia of two hearts struggling to find a way to comfort each other, to find
the ache inside and hold it tight to soothe it. There is pain in the joy and joy in the
pain, for they lose and gain friends because of their love. We see the tangible
warmth between them that they shroud modestly in elegant words, to be unlaced
and revealed only by the most tender of touches. Love is an action, a belief, a
choice, not just a mindlessly empty lust-induced chemical haze released at the
culmination of a chase.
And even the romance is not the end, for the story is trying to explicate the exact
differences between many types of relationships. It all comes to a head when the
Princess asks George to tell her, to explain to her why he is different from the King.
For above all, this story is about fathers. In this day when even the idea of
fatherhood is often seen as something irrelevant, to be cast aside as if it were not
really necessary, this story shows the difference a good father can make in the life
of his child. It also shows the hidden agony of parenthood that children never
recognize, the terrible ways in which fathers can hurt their children even when they
mean to love them most. How profoundly a father's love or lack thereof can shape
a child's world. The awe-fear-love-hate roiling mix of emotions that surge through
a girlchild as she watches her father intently, minutely, learning from his every
movement, and judging his judgment by her own high standards.
No wonder Harrison dedicated the book to her own father.
He should be proud. The book is wise and deep, full of everything from subtle
political games -- who has authority, why and how is it bestowed, what is moral
for a leader to do -- to the big themes like prejudice and discrimination. It's done
quietly, though, in the margins, less showy, more effective. The teens who read this
will carry it in their memories as a profoundly life-shaping story to cling to even
when they're not aware of it. The shape of it will stay with them, the choices they
remember themselves making when they were immersed in these characters of
goodwill trying to do good work in the world, who care so deeply about what is
right that they learn to live with the consequences of their actions even when they
don't turn out as planned.
I know my life is better for having read it, anyway.