Stardust by Neil Gaiman
(Avon Spike, $22.00, G) ISBN 0-380-97728-1
Stardust is not so much a romance as a fantasy adventure with a romance thread. Since this is The Romance Reader, I'd be remiss if I didn't forewarn you. That said, it's an entertaining and slightly whimsical tale of a young man who sets out on a seemingly hopeless quest in order to win his ladylove, only to find that nothing is quite what he thought.

The tiny village of Wall sits at the edge of a meadow and woodland inhabited by Faerie folk. Villagers are forbidden to pass through the one opening in the wall surrounding the town, but once every nine years; a wonderful fair takes place on the meadow and people come from miles around to savor the delights found there. Dunstan Thorn knows well what can be found there. For helping a stranger, he is offered his heart's desire, and loses that heart to a faerie woman at the fair. Their one encounter leads to a child, whom Dunstan and his wife raise as their own.

Flash forward. Tristran Thorn is now a callow youth of seventeen, hopelessly in love with the prettiest girl in the village. Unfortunately for Tristran, Victoria Forester hasn't the least interest in him. When Tristran begs for a kiss, Victoria turns him down. Tristran impulsively offers to bring Victoria a fallen star in exchange for his heart's desire. Victoria, amused, agrees and Tristran sets out through the wall surrounding the village and into the forbidden Faerie realm beyond.

He carries little with him: a satchel, some food, and a glass flower, given to him by his father. Unbeknownst to Tristran, this flower is a memento of his mother. Her legacy will aid him on his journey, and when the circle is complete, Tristran will know who he really is.

There are other, darker forces in search of the star, who has fallen to Earth in the form of a young woman named Yvaine. A witch wants Yvaine's heart as an amulet for eternal youth. A conniving trio of brothers want the topaz stone that knocked Yvaine from the sky in the first place. And Yvaine wants nothing to do with Tristran when he finds her. As with all good heroes, there are may obstacles to overcome.

Neil Gaiman has created a world of enchantment that's easy for a reader to enter and comprehend. Tristran's journey to understanding and maturity unfolds smoothly, and the events along his path intertwine seamlessly. There are even some moments of humor, as when Tristan first meets a hairy little man who, upon hearing Tristran's story, advises him to tell Victoria to

"go shove her face in the pigpen, and go out and find another one who'll kiss you without askin' for the earth. You're bound to find one. You can hardly throw half a brick back in the lands you come from without hittin' one."

Readers may wince at the price; twenty-two dollars for a slim book with large-ish type and wide margins is a lot. But Stardust is an enjoyable way to pass a winter evening. You just may find yourself peering out the window, looking for a falling star.

--Cathy Sova

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