This is a lovely mix of fantasy and faery. Gaiman’s characters and plot lines stack up with the brothers Grimm, but he adds some flesh and personality. But not too much personality – we don’t get bogged down in introspective angst or belabouring the human condition. He’s kept it simple, but managed charm over banality. We’re carried along by the events, sure, but none of the characters are throwaways: my favourite was the unnamed ‘little hairy person’ – the scene where Tristan meets him is a cracker. The magic feels magical, the innocents are good, the witches are bad, and the conventions work for Gaiman, not against him. Moreover the mix of plots and subplots is pretty much seamless – it’s unusual to not notice a few bumpy links here and there, but I just realised I didn’t notice a thing (well, maybe the topaz…).
It’s refreshing that our hero’s good nature and upbringing primarily help to get him through – that fairy tale morality that often sees a kind deed pay off (as opposed to a mystical orb of chaos or preternatural martial skills). There’s even something of the feel of George MacDonald’s excellent Princess and Curdie (and without a single early sexual episode you could probably recommend it to kids as well as grown ups) – the strength, and maturity, of innocence: well, in his acknowledgements Gaiman does doff his cap to McDonald’s greatest fan, the unfashionable C.S. Lewis.