Usually I read books in one long breathless gulp, straight through dinnertime or late into the night, unable to stop until I come to the end of the story. Stardust is different, something I have been reading little by little, one or two chapters a night, nibbling away at Gaiman's words the way Charlie Bucket nibbles away at his precious chocolate bars to make them last longer. For me it is a new way to experience literature, a slow falling in love instead of a headlong free-fall, like inching my way step by step into the sea instead of diving in straight off, an extraordinary sensation, one I ordinarily don't have the patience to make time for. I want to know how the story ends, whether the hero wins his heart's desire, whether the heroine finds true love, whether the villain meets his or her rightful end, and often I can't sleep until I find the answers, such as who poured the hemlock into the unfaithful painter's beer.
I am not sure how I discovered Neil Gaiman, or what first drew me to Stardust, but I came to the end of the second chapter, and gave a little jump of surprise. But I will come back to that later. It begins with the town of Wall, in the earlier years of Queen Victoria, and with the young Dunstan Thorn. The town of Wall takes its name from a high wall of grey rock, which has a single opening that looks onto a meadow and beyond that a stream and trees among which shapes and figures can sometimes be seen; guards prevent people from passing through tha opening in the wall, except for "every nine years, on May Day, when a fair comes to the meadow." It is during this fair that the eighteen-year-old Dunstan Thorn meets a mysterious stranger who promises him his heart's desire, and at the fair he meets a young faerie, bound to slavery by a stall-owner, who steals his heart and leaves him, several months later (during which he has married Daisy Hempstock) with a baby son, Tristran.
Time passes, and the young Tristran is seventeen years old and madly in love with Victoria Forester, the most beautiful girl in town. He asks for a kiss, and for her hand in marriage, but is refused on both counts, even after promising to go to far-off places in order to bring back anything he can think of, gold and rubies and diamonds and opals and elephant tusks. But it is in exchange for a fallen star that she promises him anything he desires, and so he sets off with a bag of apples and bread and cheese and heads off through that gap in the wall, where he is given admission for being his father's son, and the son of that young faerie Dunstan Thorn met at the fair all those years ago. And, too ignorant to be scared, too young to be awed, Tristran Thorn passed beyond the fields we know...and into Faerie.
Gaiman, Neil. Stardust. HarperPerennial, 2006. pp 5