Current Reading: Stardust, by Neil Gaiman

Gaiman is a guy who is immensely popular with the public at large but often criticized, even bashed, by those in the Castalia/Superversive camp, who lean very old school (with the exception of his Sandman comics, which appear to be universally admired by all and sundry).

But I’ve always been curious about Gaiman. What is it about him that really captures so many people? Is it really fair for me to dislike him without reading him?

I had to know. The first thing I read by him was “A Study in Emerald”, his Sherlock Holmes/Lovecraft pastiche and a Hugo winner. Being a big Holmes fan (Yes, I’m one of those guys who has read all 60 Conan Doyle Sherlock Holmes stories and seen at least five different versions of the character on screen. Not the biggest fan, but big. By the way, don’t let the Jeremy Brett pushers fool you, the most accurate version of the character is Basil Rathbone, and Robert Downey Jr. is more accurate than he’s often given credit for), I enjoyed it quite a bit, but it was shallow; there was a lot of cleverness to it, but very little else.

So, it was good, but not really great. Next I tried “The Ocean at the End of the Lane”, considered by many, if Amazon reviews are to go by, a masterpiece.

Meh. It had a similar theme as John C. Wright’s “One Bright Star to Guide Them”, but John did it better, and I don’t even think it’s one of his better works. “Ocean” wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t the masterpiece people were claiming.

So is that it? Should I give up? After all, all of the guys I read and hang out with online are bashing Gaiman left and right. Maybe I should.

…But not yet. I decided to give him one more shot. Maybe I just needed to pick the right book…

…And then I remembered something. Charlie Cox – the terrific actor who plays Daredevil – mentioned in one interview he was in a movie called “Stardust” that he really enjoyed and thought was unappreciated – and it was based on a Gaiman book.

I looked up the plot summary. It seemed promising. So hey, let’s give it a shot, right? Nothing ventured and all that.

…Okay. I’m very early in…but there is something about this book. Something magical.

The potential is all there – for example, in sections like this:

Victoria Forester squeezed his hand. “And whatever would I do with a kangaroo?” she asked. “Now, we should be getting along, or my father and mother will be wondering what has kept me, and they will leap to some entirely unjustified conclusions. For I have not kissed you, Tristran Thorn.” “Kiss me,” he pleaded. “There is nothing I would not do for your kiss, no mountain I would not scale, no river I would not ford, no desert I would not  cross.”

He gestured widely, indicating the village of Wall below them, the night sky above them. In the constellation of Orion, low on the Eastern horizon, a star flashed and glittered and fell. “For a kiss, and the pledge of your hand,” said Tristran, grandiloquently, “I would bring you that fallen star.” He shivered. His coat was thin, and it was obvious he would not get his kiss, which he found puzzling. The manly heroes of the penny dreadfuls and shilling novels never had these problems getting kissed.

“Go on, then,” said Victoria. “And if you do, I will.” “What?” said Tristran. “If you bring me that star,” said Victoria, “the one that just fell, not another star, then I’ll kiss you. Who knows what else I might do…

…“And if I brought you the fallen star?” asked Tristran lightly. “What would you give me? A kiss? Your hand in marriage?”

“Anything you desire,” said Victoria, amused.

“You swear it?” asked Tristran…

…“Of course,” said Victoria, smiling.

…Tristran Thorn went down on his knees in the mud, heedless of his coat or his woolen trousers. “Very well,” he said. The wind blew from the east, then. “I shall leave you here, my lady,” said Tristran Thorn. “For I have urgent business, to the East.” He stood up, unmindful of the mud and mire clinging to his knees and coat, and he bowed to her, and then he doffed his bowler hat.

I know that’s a long section, but that? That is EXACTLY how fairy tales should sound. That is grade A, classic stuff right there. That is brilliant.

It could still go wrong. Neil Gaiman undoubtedly has SJW tendencies (but then, most authors do). And it did start with a sex scene – not particularly egregious, nor portrayed as necessarily the right thing to do (for all interaction with fairies is implied to be fraught with risk), but it certainly stands out as atypical for fairy tales.

But that section from above…

There is a ton of potential here. Let’s see if Gaiman sticks the landing. I shall keep reading.

  • I’ve always liked Gaiman, frankly. He’s not perfect, but when he’s on, he’s on, and in terms of creatively telling a fantasy story, there’s no one that can compare except for JCW. Where I think he goes wrong is that he can almost trick you into thinking he’s a superversive type and then there will be a story that’s astoundingly stupid, like “the problem of Susan.”

    • Anthony M

      Ah, “The Problem of Susan”. Awful story. I wrote an article in the sci phi journal defending C.S. Lewis. I actually criticized Phillip Pullman more than Gaiman, but he did give me the title.

  • H.P.

    The only Gaiman I’ve read is American Gods. I came away thinking it is highly overrated, but by no means bad. (Part of the problem with Gaiman is that he’s so incredibly loved that anything that isn’t a masterpiece is “overrated.”) Part of the reason I thought it only good not great is that it comes off as the kind of thing someone with only very limited experience with flyover country would write about flyover country. So maybe it is no surprise people with very limited experience with flyover country love it and me, someone who has spent his adult life crisscrossing flyover country, is somewhat put off.

    • Anthony M

      It’s the Castalia crowd especially that seems to dislike him, but then – and I know this is unpopular, but here I go – I think they often go too far bashing sci-fi and fantasy from the 80’s onward. There’s some really good stuff there.

    • Mary

      American Gods is indeed overrated. Worse is Anansi Boys, which I could not finish. I find him very — uneven.

      Stardust is good. So is Neverwhere.