Powells' Review-of-the-Day posted an homage to Neil Gaiman over the weekend, on the occasion of two of Gaiman's books being made into movies. Stardust is coming soon as a live-action film, and the creepy and fun Coraline will be relased as an animated feature early in 2008.
The piece dwells on Stardust, which crossed Gaiman over from the world of comic books to the mainstream book world.
I flipped Stardust open to one of my favorite passages:
It was night in the glade by the pool and the sky was bespattered with stars beyond counting.
[...] A field mouse found a fallen hazel nut and began to bite into the hard shell of the nut with his sharp, ever-growing front teeth, not because he was hungry, but because he was a prince under an enchantment who could not regain his outer form until he chewed the Nut of Wisdom. But his excitement made him careless, and only the shadow that blotted out the moonlight warned him of the descent of a huge grey owl, who caught the mouse in her sharp talons and rose again into the night.
[...] The owl swallowed the mouse in a couple of gulps, leaving just its tail trailing from her mouth, like a length of bootlace. Something snuffled and grunted as it pushed through the thicket -- a badger, thought the owl (herself under a curse, and only able to resume her rightful shape if she consumed a mouse who had eaten the Nut of Wisdom)...
I'm not about to climb aboard the "My Favorite Writer Is So Much Better than J. K. Rowling" ship, but I confess that Gaiman's wit and cleverness make his work shimmer where Rowling's prose strikes me as dull. The above passage, in particular, hits exactly the right note -- not just because it's surprising and clever, in a manner both sweet and sour (life so often being a comedy and tragedy in the same stroke), but because Gaiman turns the dreaded, scene-setting descriptive passage (which I so often skim) into a vivid delight.
The rest of the novella is every bit as charming and thrilling. Gaiman turns a story of misbegotten love into an epic adventure that never ceases to entertain -- and is all the stronger for its brevity.