August 30, 2007


Stardust. By Neil Gaiman. HarperEntertainment. $6.99.

Burying the Sun. By Gloria Whelan. HarperTrophy. $6.99.

      Neil Gaiman does fantasy so well because he refuses to play by the rules. Or, more precisely, by the genre’s long-established rules. There are rules in Gaiman’s fantasies – in fact, what the rules are and how they work is a big part of Stardust – but Gaiman likes to make up his own rules, not use some dusty old ones left over by other writers. Stardust was originally published in 1999, and is now available as a new paperback that includes illustrations from the recently released live-action film based on the book. Whatever you think of the film – whose screenplay Gaiman did not write – the novel is just as enjoyable a sendup of heroic fantasy as ever. It’s all about a young man named Tristran Thorn, who makes a foolish promise in the English countryside of long ago – a promise that takes him through a mysterious high stone wall and into the land of magic. What awaits him there is not your typical fairy-tale strange and wondrous adventure. Oh, it’s strange and wondrous enough, but in true Gaiman style, it’s a little…well, skewed. Tristran is seeking a falling star – which turns out to be a young woman – and the two must journey together so Tristran can return to his walled village (named, of course, Wall) and marry the girl for whom he foolishly promised to seek and find the star in the first place. Throughout the journey, Gaiman plays by fantasy rules and with them as well, as when Tristran meets one of the denizens of the magical world: “‘Thief!’ shouted a cracked old voice. ‘I shall turn your bones to ice and roast you in front of a fire! I shall pluck your eyes out and tie one to a herring and t’other to a seagull, so the twin sights of sea and sky shall take you into madness! I shall make your tongue into a writhing worm and your fingers shall become razors, and fire ants shall itch your skin, so each time you scratch yourself – ’ ‘There is no need to belabor your point,’ said Tristran to the old woman.” This combination of overstatement and deflation of fairy-tale tradition is the heart of Stardust, pulling the tale merrily along to its epilogue, “In Which Several Endings May Be Discerned.” Throughout all this, it is worth bearing in mind what one character points out: “These things have rules. All things have rules.” True – and figuring out which ones Gaiman is following, and inventing, is a major pleasure of this book.

      Burying the Sun has a fairy-tale title but a subject drawn from real-world history – although filled with quite enough horrors to make a grim (or Grimm) fairy tale. This is the third volume of Gloria Whelan’s Russian Saga, which began with Angel on the Square and continued with The Impossible Journey. This third book, published in 2004 and now available in paperback, is set in Leningrad (now restored to its old name of St. Petersburg) in 1941, when onetime allies Germany and the Soviet Union are at war and the city is subject to a long-lasting and terrifying siege. This was a turning point of the war – Mother Russia eventually repelling another seemingly invincible invader, as she had ousted Napoleon in the previous century – and an inspirational one: Shostakovich’s Symphony No. 7, “Leningrad,” commemorates it. But for 14-year-old Georgi, all that matters is day-to-day survival for him and his family. Georgi is too young for the army but not too young to try to help save the city – just as his mother is helping by treating wounded soldiers and his sister is packing up the art from the Heritage Museum in hopes of keeping the masterpieces (and the cultural history they represent) safe for the future. Burying the Sun merits a (+++) rating for its moving portrait of a city under siege, but its adventure elements – Georgi decides that his role will be to find a way to get food into the city – are fairly straightforward, and its characters are not portrayed with significant depth. This may be fine for many readers ages 10 and up – the book’s target audience – but more-thoughtful preteens may find the approach a little thin and formulaic.

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