Neil Gaiman Month #4: Stardust, American Gods

Stardust

Neil Gaiman’s sparkling Stardust is a fairy tale for grown ups. Setting out from the village of Wall, Tristan goes on a quest into the land of Faerie to retrieve a fallen star for his love Victoria. Little does he know, an ancient powerful witch is also on a hunt for the star. But what sounds like a standard fairy story turns into pure magic through Gaiman’s masterful writing.

Gaiman excels at taking basic storytelling tropes and subverting them without losing their timeless appeal. With this fairy tale, we go on the archetypal hero’s journey: Tristan, our hero, is an unassuming dreamer. Through his series of adventures, Tristan finds that under his awkward sincerity, he also has courage, honor, and a dogged determination to do the right thing. But Gaiman re-invents the familiar hero’s transformative journey with bawdy humor, surprise twists, and genuine suspense.

What really sets Stardust apart from other fairy tales is Gaiman’s stunning prose. He creates an entire world, vivid and unique, and the reader is pulled into Faerie. We smell its earthiness and feel its tingling magical atmosphere; we grasp its scope and gape at its scenery. Faerie is alive with astonishingly well-crafted characters. Gaiman breathes new life into cliched fairy tale figures – gnomes, ghosts, trees, faeries, unicorns, swashbucklers, all become three-dimensional beings, with personality and purpose, that up the stakes and have their own motivations. The villains are at turns darkly funny, sadly sympathetic, and sheer evil. Even Tristan’s love, Victoria, is not a stock doe-eyed ingenue.

Stardust is fast-paced and hard to put down. It’s themes of love, magic, and power are universal and timeless, but in Neil Gaiman’s hands, what could be just another fairy tale becomes so much more.

American Gods

American Gods has become a modern classic, and rightly so. Neil Gaiman’s dark twisty take on the classic American road trip tale is riveting. Shadow, a paroled convict, and the central protagonist, finds employment with the mysterious Mr. Wednesday as a bodyguard, driver, and errand boy. Mr. Wednesday travels with the taciturn Shadow across America, meeting with personified Gods and visiting tourist traps along the way, as Shadow discovers his fate hinges on the fates of the Gods, old and new.

Gaiman is a master of re-energizing classic literary traditions, and in American Gods, he takes on ancient mythologies and pits them against modern idols. From Odin to the Queen of Sheba, African animal spirits to Celtic fairies, and Media to Technology, Gaiman re-creates mythological beings into fascinating, fully-fleshed characters. The mood of the book is at turns darkly funny, weird and macabre, and often bittersweet. Gaiman’s prose is lush and evocative, but the story is action-packed, the pace is brisk, and it’s a real page-turner.

The book’s themes of love, loss, idolization, and redemption are timeless, and Gaiman’s personifications of human belief and objects of worship offer the reader a chance to reflect not only on the history of human religious beliefs, but also how we turn modern objects and ideas into idols. American Gods deserves its place in the new modern canon of classic literature.

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