STARDUST BY Neil Gaiman Avon Books 238pp., $22
Set in early 19th-century England, Neil Gaiman's "Stardust" evokes the crisp style of the Brothers Grimm fairy tales. The author uses the magic and wonder of fantasy to depict what it is to be human.
Every nine years in the town of Wall, faeries present a market in a meadow on May Day. Eighteen-year-old Dunstan Thorn, in love with Daisy Hempstock, meets a stranger whom he believes has arrived from London to attend the faerie market. When Dunstan agrees to lodge him in his farmyard shack, the stranger offers him his heart's desire.
At the market the next day, the stranger leads Dunstan to a booth where he meets a woman whose "eyes were a deep violet, while her ears were the ears of a cat, perhaps, gently curved, and dusted with a fine, dark fur."
Enslaved to a witch, she sells flowers made of crystal. Dunstan offers the faerie maiden money for a flower he wants to give to Daisy, but she refuses and tells him his payment is one kiss on her cheek.
Here, we begin to see that in Gaiman's fiction, as in classic fairy tales, each action has a consequence. He kisses her "with goodwill!" and she asks him to meet her that night when the moon sets. After an evening of romance, Dunstan turns his attention to his village love, Daisy, whom he weds in June.
The story then jumps to Dunstan's half-faerie son, Tristran, who vows to win his village love, Victoria Forester. One evening they see a falling star streak through the sky, and Tristran turns to Victoria and declares his love to her.
Unfortunately, she doesn't share his affection. To put him off, she tells him that if he returns with the fallen star, a promise she knows he could never fulfill, she will grant him any wish he wants.
Tristran, nevertheless, attempts to accomplish the impossible. He enters into the land of faeries in search of the fallen star, which turns out to be something other than what he was expecting. Along the way, he learns the nature of true love and the sacrifice required to achieve it.
The story comes full circle to another faerie market outside Wall where all secrets are revealed, and we discover the nature of Tristran's mysterious mother with
the violet eyes and whether or not he has earned the hand of Victoria.
Gaiman personifies various character traits as a way to reveal the emotions and spiritual caliber of humanity in all its beauty as well as its horror.
In Gaiman's most famous work, the 10-volume graphic novel series "Sandman," he presented such characters as Dream, Desire, Destiny, and the teenaged sister Death as backdrops against which very human characters face their dreams, desires, fears, and destinies.
Gaiman returns to these themes in "Stardust," using fairy tale witches and magical creatures to depict the emotions, fears, and courage of Tristran as he attempts to attain his quest for love.
Gaiman's prose is concise and, at times, beautifully poetic. Recalling one spritely lass, he notes that "her lips tasted like crushed blackberries."
Like Grimm's fairy tales, the story does contain violence. Also, a few sexual scenes mark this book for mature readers.
In a literary world that seems so full of Grishams and Clancys, its delightful to find a fresh tale that evokes not just contemporary fantasy but such otherworldly classics by Spencer and Shakespeare.
*Kurt Lancaster has taught science fiction at New York University and recently directed several science-fiction plays off-off Broadway.