Neil Gaiman is one of my favourite authors. He excels at narrative, describing setting, characters, and emotions with a simplicity that is deceptively loaded and a charm that is inherently English. I especially admired his ability to make the fantastic and the unreal feel so familiar and so right with such casual language.
Stardust (1999) is a coming-of-age story about young man who goes on a magical adventure. While the plot begins in rural England just before the Industrial Revolution, the majority of the book occurs in Faerie, a well-known literary landscape whence fairy tales arise and visited prior by many writers both contemporary and yonder past. This review will examine plot, characters, and narrative. There will be spoilers
After witnessing a shooting star fall out of the sky, Tristan Thorn promises to retrieve the star for his beloved in exchange for his heart’s desire. The premise is as old as time itself: hero sets off on an adventure for glory/riches/love. Gaiman, however, executes the familiar story with success, chiefly because the entire plot is compact and tidy. There was a reason the star fell from the sky, a reason why it had to be Tristan who found the star, and a reason why he ends up not getting what he wants in the end, but instead something much more. This is all framed within a world that has a consistent and logical magic system (though, admittedly, there were some arbitrary technicalities).
This is an adventure story, with mighty lords, evil witches, and a shooting star personified, but it’s also a story about a boy growing up. I never put much stock in “literary themes” and “artsy values” and all that. The primary reason I read books is to be amazed by wonderful worlds and engaging plots, to be distracted from the real world for a while, and on that score Stardust is a ten out of ten.
Tristan is a cool protagonist. He’s resourceful, down-to-earth (which is ironic), and level-headed. Despite his apparent “normalness” he is also passionate and somewhat rash, but it is his pure-heartedness is that keeps us rooting for him.
Each member of the supporting cast is interesting in their own right, and help to fill out the plot, which is quite the accomplishment. No character is frivolous, and just about every single one of them plays an important role, even the goatboy who gets turned into a goat. The evil witch and the Stormlords also have valid reason for pursuing the star, and their backstories are tantalizing precisely because we only get just enough information about them. Less is more, the old adage goes, and while I wish I knew more about Primus and Septimus, what we got was good enough, because this is ultimately Tristan’s story.
What is greatest of all is that Gaiman’s characters all grow naturally as a result of their journeys. Tristant embraces his faerie-ness, Yvaine has perhaps the most interesting story arc, starting out as someone who hates Tristan but ends up as his queen, Primus and Septimus pay the ultimate price for their family feud, and the witches ends up screwing each other over because of their own devious spells. Everything was done in such a clever way, and each character felt real and natural, which is saying something when they hale from a land where sky-pirates hunt for lightning bolts and stars become people when they land on (Faerie) Earth.
The thing about Gaiman’s prose is that it’s soothing, even while describing incredible things. The narrative sounds almost like a parent reading you a bedtime story. The calmness of his voice imbues Gaiman with a supernatural authority, and when he tells me there’s a magical world just beyond the wall, I believe him, because his voice is elegantly confident and smooth, a voice that I can trust.
The vocabulary is fanciful without being extravagant, and the imagery is evocative and stimulating. Storytelling doesn’t get much better than this.
Neil Gaiman is the complete package: an entertaining plot and interesting characters are brought together in an efficient and colorful narrative. The book was a good snack for my inner bookworm, as it’s fairly short. I highly recommend this novel to fans of fantasy and magic realism. It’s a pleasant adventure that is sure to leave you with sweet dreams, and a second thought when you see your next shining star in the sky.
This has been a gamobo review. Thanks for reading.