By Neil Gaiman
Synopsis: In the sleepy English countryside at the dawn of the Victorian era, life moves at a leisurely pace in the tiny town of Wall. Young Tristran Thorn has lost his heart to the beautiful Victoria Forester, but Victoria is cold and distant as the star she and Tristran see fall from the sky one evening. For the prize of Victoria's hand, Tristan vows to retrieve the star for his beloved. It is an oath that sends the lovelorn swain over the town's ancient wall and into a world that is dangerous and strange beyond imagining...
OK. So before I get into my review I just want to share something that made me a little giddy and fan-girly and I can't help but share it. As I was copying the synopsis of this book onto this review I noticed that the title character was referred to as Tristan instead of Tristran. I freaked out for a minute thinking that I was such a bad reader that I had invented an unusual name in the place of a normal one, but a quick scan of the actual text and a google search (thanks Wikipedia!) proved that I had indeed been reading the name correctly. I mentioned it in a tweet, and amazingly enough, Neil Gaiman actually responded! So he only said about 6 words to me over two tweets, but I'm still playing with the idea of printing this out and framing it, regardless! It's one of those moments that make me so happy for modern technology, I just conversed with one of my heroes. Dude.
But enough of my fan-girly giddyness, on to the review! This was a wonderful book, if I was still doing my rating system it would have been an instant 5 stars. I know there are readers out there who refuse to admit their favourite authors can do anything wrong and just rate books highly because they're written by Mr(s) X, but this definitely isn't the case. This book was such a lovely reminder of the stories I grew up with, those beloved Enid Blyton books of faraway worlds atop faraway trees with delicious characters, and those quirky and heart-filling tales by Roald Dahl mixing magic with reality. They were the books that taught me to love reading and to love the magic that exists in our world and our imagination, and they definitely lay the building blocks for my current identity and personality.
The book begins "there was once a young man who wished to gain his Heart's Desire," and if you asked me to sum up the entire book that'd probably be the most perfect way possible. Every character is searching for their heart's desire, and while many of their story lines cross and their needs conflict, they all that in common. Tristran is our protagonist and lives in the town of Wall, a sweet, if dull, little English hamlet that has one very special feature. It borders the entrance to Faerieland, and one every few years people from both sides of the wall (i.e. our world and Faerieland) gather to hold a market selling wonderfully odd and bizarre objects and food. It's at one of these fairs that Tristran's father is granted his heart's desire (and that of the next few generations) and succumbs to a night of passion with an imprisoned elfy-magical lady from Faerieland and fathers Tristran.
Years later, Tristran believes that his heart's desire is Victoria, a beautiful girl from Wall who has the attention of every other man in town too. In a bid to win her heart and prove his worth, he makes the promise to journey past the wall into Faerieland and collect the star that both of them saw fall. And with a heart full of love, and a promise to fulfil, the adventure begins.
Unfortunately for Tristran, the journey to collect the star for the beautiful Victoria isn't exactly easy. The first real snag in the plan occurs when he arrives at the star's location. In the place of a chunk of rock is a young woman named Yvaine with a broken leg and a case of the grumps. Not surprising though, considering she'd been minding her business all star-like before a jewel came spinning through the air and knocked her down to earth. Which brings in complication number 2, that jewel is the object of desire for three brothers who are desperate to obtain it and thus rule over their father's kingdom now that he's dead. And if the star being a person who has in her possession the jewel most desired by three murderous brothers wasn't enough, then there are the witches. It seems that the heart of a fallen star is a mighty fine way to get over that pesky old-age problem that occurs when you've been alive for millennia. So along with the pesky small-folk, unicorns, tricky landscapes and huge, huge distances, Tristran has his hands full of cranky stars, jealous and malicious witches and ambitious brothers. He certainly isn't in Kansas anymore, Toto.
The adventure itself is fairly conventional. It sticks to the well-worn path introduced by countless children's authors writing about magical worlds or fantasy creatures, and because of this it ends up bordering this slightly awkward position between adult and children's story. The plethora of magic and questing and cheery little hairy men would easily appeal to children, but it also contains content that is most definitely written with an adult reader in mind. I think Neil Gaiman is quite clearly trying to write a fairytale for adults, and to show that it's quite alright to immerse yourself in such "childish" worlds, but I think the conventional format could perhaps put up a barrier for adults who have read other Gaiman books but aren't used to such positive, whimsical stories by him.
However, as conventional as the plotting may be, this is a wonderful book. The characters are quirky, funny, whimsical and 5-dimensional (because three just don't cover it!) and the writing is so wonderfully Gaiman-y that I can't imagine anyone disliking this book. By combining well-known (and loved) fantasy/fairytale conventions with warm and interesting characters and the central theme of finding one's heart's desire Neil Gaiman weaves a warm and unbelievably happy book. I couldn't wipe the smile off my face as I followed the adventure and witnessed the characters making brave, stupid and wonderful decisions. Maybe it's because of my history with books like this and the memories it raised, but this is one of my new favourite books and certainly one which will soon become old and worn with my multiple re-reads!