Summer Reading

I’m up in the Kinrowan Estate library as a way of avoiding all the work that needs doing for our Midsummer celebration in Oberon’s Wood. Even Emma Bull’s busy harvesting more of those odd Border strawberries . Not that I’m adverse to a bit of honest work when need be, but I’m a better fiddler than I am a mover of kegs and food. I’ll wander back down when the music’s ready to start. But for now, I’m looking for something interesting to read that is reminiscent of the summer season. Hmmm … fiction’s worth checking out … wonder what we have for Neil Gaiman … lots, I see. Eh, what’s this? An illustrated version of one of me favourite Gaiman novels,  Stardust? Liath, when did that come in? That long ago? Sigh… I must read your listings of what’s new more often than once a decade. I know — bad lad!

There’s already a splendid review by Debbie Skolnik, so I’m going to quote from her review here:

‘It has been a l-o-n-g time since a book has so thoroughly transported me back to the world I used to live in as a child. That world, at its best, contained lots of fairy tales and magic, where anything could happen … and usually did. In this case, it was Neil Gaiman’s newest book, Stardust, that accomplished what so many other books have failed to do for me over the years. It touched places in my soul I had forgotten were there. Stardust is the story of one Tristran Thorn; half-mortal, half-Faerie. Raised by his mortal father and his wife along with his half-sister in the sleepy English village of Wall, the adolescent Tristran is eager to win the heart of his true love, Victoria Forrester. Since she doesn’t love him and hopes to dissuade his attentions, she tells him she will be his if he captures and brings back a falling star that she has seen fall out of the sky, a task she clearly thinks is impossible.’

Like Debbie, I fell in love with Stardust from the very first words. Unlike Neverwhere or American Gods, two of Gaiman’s other novels, this has, in my opinion, a light, airy feel to it. Part of that is a reflection of the tightness of the novel, as it runs only one hundred and thirty-five pages, a full twenty-seven pages shorter even than Coraline! In an age of novels that run close to a thousand pages, it was — and is — refreshing to read a novel that can be finished in a summer’s evening. Stardust was wonderful as just text, so the question becomes, do the Vess illustrations improve an already perfect tale?

I pause for dramatic effect. Well, actually I’m thirsty, so I’m popping down to the Pub for some Dragon’s Breath Stout. Care to join me? Of course you do!

The answer is not so simply yes. An illustrated reading experience — and I don’t mean a generous handful of drawings, as were done by Dave McKean for Coraline — changes me perception of the text itself. And therein lies a tale…. Charles Vess is without doubt the single finest illustrator of the Fey and their world(s) since Arthur Rackham was illustrating fairy tales in the Victorian Age. No, I don’t think Thomas Canty does a good job, as I find his fey to be too stiff, too formal — they look like they belong in the Excalibur film. Vess’ fey have a softer edge to them. His Web site has many fine examples of the fey, including this page devoted exclusively to the Stardust paintings that he did. The cover of the illustrated version of the novel I’m looking at right now has a golden woman looking into the water, with a group of small winged fey and a crow watching her. Look closely at how Vess does the framing vegetation — the detail’s amazing.

Now let’s open the novel. The inside cover’s of Wall, the town on the mortal side of the Border; the back inside cover’s of Fairy. (That neither has a true name that’s spoken makes sense. Knowing the true name of anything means you can have dominion over it.) The facing inside page is positively Rackham-ish in its look — black and white with a curvish font spelling out the names of the two responsible gentlefolk and the novel’s title. Oh, do note the dedication on the next page — the Frouds and Alan Lee, who as part of his long and illustrious career can count being the prime conceptual artist for Peter Jackson’s cite>The Lord of the Rings films. Like Alan Lee’s work on those films, what Vess has done here is create a visual world that enhances the novel.

Tolkien purists be damned — the films are in many ways better than the books, say I!

The story of Tristran Thorn and the other inhabitants of this novel, which is set in the early Victorian Age before Queen Elizabeth had married Albert — shades of the above mentioned Rackham — is brought to life by Vess in both black-and-white and colour illustrations that grace nearly every page. From the sepia-toned look at Wall to a page of the four original cover illustrations when the book was released as a limited series, everything here is so cool that it staggers me. Me favourite pictures? Any of the ones depicting Wall are amazing — it looks like a real English village. Equally amazing is the two-page colour spread of the fair that takes place every nine years in Faerie on May Day. I can practically hear the bargaining taking place between fey and mortals. The witch on page one hundred and seventy-four is a scary sight indeed! Brrrr! Look, I could go on for hours over many, many pints of either the Avalon Applejack that Bjorn, our esteemed Brewmaster, just tapped, or more of the Dragon’s Breath Stout we just finished, describing these illustrations, but I won’t. Just go look at the page from Vess’s Web site that I mentioned earlier in this review, and than imagine hundreds of illustrations just as detailed, as truly great.

Someone out there is is grumbling quietly that I didn’t mentioned the text here. Yes, the text herein appears to be a little smaller than in the signed Avon (USA printing) version that I pulled from our library for comparison, but it’s actually more readable; the publisher used a white paper that is much more clean-looking than what appears to be the high rag content paper used in the Avon printing, a darkish cream colour. I will definitely need to add the hardcover edition of Stardust to me home library!

Bottom line is that either of these gentlefolk is an artistic genius by himself, but together they are much more than the sum of their talents combined. Like Peter Jackson and Alan Lee in their ongoing film endeavours, Gaiman and Vess have created a work that enhances the Word (sic) in a very significant manner. Go read both versions — after you do, the ale’s on me in the Green Man Pub, as I’ll want to discuss what you think.

What? Oh, I’m being summoned to the Great Hall. Nine Standing Stones, a cool Celtic band from Ross-Shire in the Western Islands, is doing their sound check and they need me opinion on how it sounds. Is that ‘The Man Who was Boiled in Lead’ that I hear their fiddler playing? I believe so. Ta for now!

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