Stardust by Neil Gaiman
Book of the Year 1999 (see all)
We are all familiar with books which become beloved old friends because something in their tone, style, plot or characters so much resonates with where we happen to be in our lives when we read them. I am fairly sure that part of my strong attraction to the world of Harry Potter began with the fact that when I read it I too was coming out of some rather dire circumstances in life and moving on to a new world of good friends, possibilities and stuffy old professors amid castle walls in the far north of England (I even got to eat in a great hall and occasionally wear robes).
Of course, this is by no means the only reason why particular books might strike a chord, and the faculties of imagination and empathy can still play their part in letting us experience and understand a world and situation very different from our own, something which the sad corporate executives who assume all our interactions with literature can be reduced down to sets of demographics and statistics repeatedly fail to grasp.
However, there are undoubtedly times when imaginative empathy isn’t enough, and we cannot get the most out of a book because we’re just not in the right place to appreciate it. Such was the case for me with Stardust. Back in 2008 when I first read the book, despite generally being a huge fan of Gaiman’s work I just felt there was something missing, something incomplete. I could see the book’s good qualities from a purely technical standpoint, but it was only a cold, aesthetic appreciation, a sense of “pretty” rather than “beautiful” Undoubtedly, the reason for this was my generally grim and jaded attitude towards life in general and romance in particular. So, now that my attitude is manifestly different and I’m celebrating my first wedding anniversary, rereading Stardust, and indeed introducing my lady to Stardust for the first time seemed a good idea. Sure enough this time around I was certainly not disappointed.
Stardust is unselfconsciously and most distinctly a fairy tale. Taking place in the mid-nineteenth century, the book’s setting is the mythical village of Wall somewhere in the south of England. The village is named for a large stone wall just to the east, a wall which forms the boundary to the realm of Fairy and is only crossed every nine years during a market when people from across the globe gather to trade miracles and magic with the fairy folk. One night, 17 year-old Tristran Thorn, trying to impress the beautiful Victoria Forester, sees a falling star to the east and offers to bring it to her. Victoria laughingly accepts; agreeing to do anything he desires should he bring her the fallen star.
Little does Victoria realize however that not only is Tristran perfectly serious about bringing her the star, but also that as he is half-Fairy himself (having been conceived during one of the Fairy markets), he is perhaps not as tied to the solid life of Wall as he could be, and thus quite ready to enter Fairy on a quest.
Tristran in his turn is unaware that the star falling in Fairy is actually a girl and thus definitely not something that can be easily “brought” to anybody, or that there are powerful beings also hunting the star for their own reasons, such as the hideous witch sisters the Lilim who seek to eat the heart of a star and regain their youth.
The first thing to say about Stardust, is it is a fairy tale, not merely a tale of Fairy. It bears many of the trappings of fairy tales, a young man sent on a quest to earn a lady’s hand, a maiden, at least two wicked witches, and a host of characters who appear and for their own mysterious and inscrutable reasons help out the protagonist just when they’re in trouble. And yet, despite all the trappings of a fairy tale, there is one very crucial respect in which Stardust differs from the standard setup, it offers no guarantees.
Gaiman is known to write dark fantasy, and however seemingly dreamlike or unassailably wondrous things get, there is always the sense that this is a world which is as savage as it is beautiful, particularly given the characteristic Gaiman touch of this being a book where not everyone is safe. This is typified in a scene involving the nursery rhyme conflict of the lion and the unicorn fighting for the crown, complete with blood and mauling. Yet, Stardust never descends too far into being grim for the sake of grim, indeed it is in many ways one of the most truly lovely stories I have ever read. This is due entirely to the writing style.
It amazes me to learn that Stardust was conceived as an illustrated novel, since in no way does the prose give you the idea that it is simply there to bolster the pictures. The style is picked out in glittering highlights and small delicate touches, with even occasional use of rare or unusual words to push on the description. In particular, one thing I greatly admire is the way Gaiman plays with tiny details as parts of an overall structure, used to denote certain aspects or qualities of the mood he’s trying to invoke, whether a very typically nineteenth-century shopping list detailing a wonderful amount of Dickensian sounding household goods, or some sly little digs or casual mentions of miracles and marvels lying common place on a fairy market stall. The overall rhythm is dreamlike and compelling, especially if listening to the audiobook read by Gaiman himself (this is one book which greatly benefits from the rhythm of a good narrator). Gaiman’s attention to detail also contributes a host of layers of nuance and suggestion to the book’s otherwise fairly straight forward plot which stops things from feeling as predictable as they otherwise might. Though Tristran finds himself being helped out on several occasions by mysterious strangers in typical fairy tale fashion, it is an open question just how much of Tristran’s adventures is foreseen by those who help him and how backhanded this help is. For instance, one scene early in the book details an apparent disagreement at the fairy market between a young man and a visiting magician over the affections of the young man’s fiancé, a flirtatious barmaid, and though it is the magician who comes off best in the altercation it is ultimately her fiancé whom the barmaid runs to comfort afterwards. Given that the magician is clearly benevolent how much of the initial disagreement is a setup is very much open to interpretation.
While to an extent the characters are defined by their roles within the story, at the same time Gaiman’s wonderfully careful writing style makes them for the most part extremely appealing even when fulfilling those roles. The fallen star is almost a typical damsel being forlorn, naïve and even possessed of a broken leg throughout most of the book making her rather necessarily dependent upon others. And yet, Gaiman writes her with more than enough personality to make her endearing, rather than irritating, I particularly admire the way that he does allow her to have a temper and comically spar with Tristran, but keeps the sparring within the bounds of decency and never lets it become actively vicious. The only minorly sour note with the star is that there is one occasion when her innocence and readiness to trust a character whose untrustworthiness is so amazingly signposted does make her appear dim rather than demure, after all if an old woman using the term “dearie” didn’t ring alarm bells, the set of razor sharp stone cleavers definitely should have done.
Nevertheless, even though usually I dislike damselism intensely, the star is so well written and has so much by way of personality that I can’t stop but find myself on her side, though I freely admit I do have a fondness for sweet, tiny, gentle ladies, (not to mention stars) so I am rather biased here. Tristran similarly, though he starts as very much a love sick young man, grows up markedly throughout the course of the story, particularly because unlike most fairy tale heroes he’s neither got any unforeseen “get out of trouble free” type of powers, nor is he either overly confident or self-obsessed. The only issue I had with Tristran was the occasion when he first meets the star when callow becomes callous, and he seemingly forgets that a broken leg can hurt in his desire to return the star to Victoria and claim her hand. Fortunately, he gets over this fairly quickly and I suppose character growth cannot be counted unless a character starts out by making mistakes, even slightly irritating ones, and the wisdom Tristran starts to show towards the book’s ending makes him someone we can admire.
The secondary cast are extremely noteworthy, mostly because of how Gaiman always makes them more three-dimensional than even such archetypal characters as a wicked witch or a vane beauty should by rights be, particularly while this is undoubtedly Tristran’s story, Gaiman gives us a few extra viewpoints to flesh things out and show why certain characters end up where they are which adds more nuance when those characters encounter the book’s protagonists.
The supporting players are very memorable, mostly due to the way Gaiman writes them, and while to an extent their concept and appearance does sometimes make them briefer than we might want (I definitely would have liked to see more of the flying pirates), the quirky depictions are more than enough to keep my interest, especially with how Gaiman frequently slips sly little details of plot by the reader in an offhand character introduction or turn of descriptive phrase which make Stardust a perfect book for rereading.
My only major problem with the book, is its length. Of course, a book like Stardust thrives on the idea that the world it depicts is vast and unknowable, and there are certainly plenty of occasions when Gaiman tantalises us with the idea of Tristran and the star having other adventures than those we see. The problem however, is considering that the book is only six hours long and the first forty minutes are spent detailing Tristran’s birth (admittedly in a deeply romantic and subtle way), I felt the journey had only just begun before the path turned around to take the road home. This sense of things moving a little too quickly also means that a reader will have to work their imagination a little towards the end given that the final fate of several of the story’s villains is more a matter of slow poignancy and twists of plot than climactic defeats. This is likely why I wasn’t able to get as much from Stardust the first time around, since it is a short, intensive experience that doesn’t really allow time for a shift in expectations, indeed I would only recommend approaching Stardust if fully ready and in the right frame of mind for a fantastic voyage since the voyage is so short every detail is precious and needs consideration.
The book’s ending is apt and wonderfully delivered, particularly given the way that you are not sure whether or not the ending will be a tragic one, after all Gaiman has already shown us this is one fairy tale where the heroes are not safe, indeed quiet though parts of the final section are, I was still holding my breath at certain moments.
Stardust is unashamedly a romance. Not only because it’s plot chiefly concerns a fairy tale quest for a lady’s hand, but also because it has all the magic and mystery of Victorian romanticism behind it making it very much feel like George McDonald for grownups. That being said, there is far more here, far more by way of detail, plot and beauty than you’d find in a standard fairy tale, even most of the modern retellings, from probably the most likable incarnations of typical characters you could imagine, to the trademark Gaiman dark surreal humour and subtle convolution.
If you haven’t lost all sense of romance, and are able to still believe in the beauty of stars, Stardust is absolutely a must read.
This Stardust book review was written by Dark
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