Review: Stardust

After reading Neil Gaiman’s Norse Mythology earlier this year (and remembering how much I loved Coraline as a child), I decided I had to check out more of his books. I’ve had a few picked out, and decided to dive into Stardust this month, an adult fantasy stand-alone novel that’s short and sweet and full of adventure. It seemed like a good lead-in to The Hobbit, which I will be reading later this month.

stardustAbout the book: Dunstan Thorn sets a unique life on its adventurous course when he accepts his Heart’s Desire as rent payment from a strange and powerful man. Just shy of eighteen years later, Dunstan’s half-faerie son, Tristran, sets out past the village of Wall into the land of Faerie. He thinks he’s going to retrieve a fallen star that will win him the hand of the most beautiful girl in the village, but in Faerie nothing goes quite as planned. He meets several interesting characters along the way, some who want to help him and some that mean to thwart his plans. There’s also the matter of the fallen star possessing the form of a young lady, one who hates Tristran for his intent to trade her so he can be married. But the difficulty of Tristran’s own journey is the least of his problems– there are other creatures seeking the star, characters who will cut down anyone in their path. But even if Tristran succeeds, will the most beautiful girl in town consent to marry a shop-boy destined to be a sheep farmer in the little village of Wall?

” ‘I had thought,’ he confessed, ‘that a fallen star would probably look like a diamond or a rock. I certainly wasn’t expecting a lady.’ ‘So, having found a lady, could you not have come to her aid, or left her alone? Why drag her into your foolishness?’ ‘Love,’ he explained. She looked at him with eyes the blue of the sky. ‘I hope you choke on it,’ she said flatly.’ “

This is one of those episodic tales which, I think, require a lot more work from the author to keep the reader’s attention than traditional plot arcs. The reader must stay interested in many different “episodes” throughout the book, rather than one continuous arc, which means it’s all in the details, rather than the plot. This happens often with adventure stories, in my experience. In this case, there is the matter of the fallen star quest to tie Stardust all together, but Tristran’s search for the falling star is only one event among many. Gaiman juggles multiple characters, multiple plot lines, and many “episodes” in this one short volume.

For that reason, world-building forms the bulk of this short novel. There’s plenty going on, but it’s veiled in description of unusual place details and characters with uncommon mannerisms. The most interesting introduction for me was the addition to the story of seven brothers in the middle of killing one another in various deceitful ways, but all of the character introductions and new places are similarly packed with unusual background or sensory details to keep the reader engaged. The village of Wall and the world of Faerie seem almost tangible. Thus, the world-building is the strength of Gaiman’s Stardust.

The weakness, by contrast, is the romance. Tristran is willing to spend so much of his time and energy on this crazy quest for the girl he thinks he loves, but the reader sees from the beginning that his “love” for the beautiful Wall girl is a youthful infatuation no deeper than a preoccupation with the color of her eyes. In Faerie, he discovers that he wants something quite different for his life than manning a sheep farm with the beautiful village girl. But even when romance starts to play a role in the story for the second time, there are none of the casual little details to indicate affection; the love is necessary to the plot, and is described rather flatly, only going so far as to make its point. Books without romance can be great. Books with romance that isn’t the center of the story can also be done fantastically. But in a book like this, when romance plays such a key role in Tristran’s adventures, there need to be enough details for the love to feel as real as the world, and in that regard, Stardust fails.

But let’s talk about Tristran next.

“He was a gangling creature of potential, a barrel of dynamite waiting for someone or something to light his fuse; but no one did, so on weekends and in the evenings he helped his father on the farm, and during the day he worked for Mr. Brown, at Monday and Brown’s, as a clerk.”

Tristran is an elusive character, not especially wise or idiotic, not especially anything, really. He does take action of his own, but he is also shunted along in his journey by the actions of others. He takes things as they come, with little show of emotion. If not for his willingness to adventure, he would seem a particularly bland character. But he is willing to take chances and partake in quests and anything else required of him, and that makes him an excellent guide through a novel like this in which the reader never knows what to expect next. With such a fluid story line, the main character can’t be too rigid in his ways or the adventure won’t be possible. On his own, Tristran would be nothing more than a boring sheep farmer, but he is not on his own. He is part of Wall, and part of the Faerie realm. He is oath-bound to a fallen star. He’s capable and versatile, and ready to change the world.

Stardust feels a bit like a writer’s exercise, a foray into uncharted territory. It’s the sort of story I imagine would emerge from a writer’s hands when he/she sat down at the keyboard and decided to follow the letters wherever his/her fingers took the story, through worlds real and imagined. It could have been expanded four or five times into a thick fantasy novel if things hadn’t worked out so quickly and easily for Tristran on his quest. Personally, I would’ve followed those murderous brothers through several hundred more pages even if their story veered far beyond the point where it overlaps with Tristran’s. Instead, Stardust is a sample of fantasy– a snapshot, a tiny glimpse into the realm of the extraordinary. This one’s definitely an adult tale, so if you’re looking for an easy start into adult fantasy, Stardust would be a great way to get a feel for that genre without investing much time.

My reaction: 3 out of 5 stars. I enjoyed the journey, but I was also glad to put it behind me at the end. I’ll still be reading more Neil Gaiman books, whether this year or next I don’t know, but I’m in awe of Gaiman’s range. The three books I’ve read under his name have been so vastly different that I have no idea what to expect from further books, but I’m definitely curious enough to find out.

Further recommendations:

  1. All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders is an adult magical realism novel that feels similarly episodic, and follows a scientist boy and a magical girl from childhood to adulthood, through crises of varying magnitude.
  2. The Magician’s Boy, the first book in C. S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia, is a more apt choice for readers young and old who want another easy entrance to the fantasy genre. If you’re looking for fantasy that’s fun but not strictly adult, try Narnia; I started reading these books when I was seven, and am still enjoying them now that I’m in my twenties with an English degree. Narnia is a land where anything can happen, and all seven books are quick and engaging reads.

Coming up Next: I’m currently reading Agatha Christie’s Murder on the Orient Express, a classic murder mystery (from the legendary queen of murder mysteries). This one’s about a long train ride in which a passenger is killed… meaning anyone on the train could have done it, and anyone on the train could be the next victim.

Sincerely,

The Literary Elephant

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