Stardust is a 1998 fantasy novel by Neil Gaiman. It’s been a part of my personal backlog of books to read by the author for a while, and in a lot of ways it was not what I’d been expecting. The story concerns the small village of Wall in England, known for the ancient wall that is its namesake that separates our world from that of the Faerie. The only way to pass through the wall is a small passage, typically guarded to keep village folk from wandering into the unknown. Tristran Thorn, however, is hopelessly in love with the captivating yet disinterested Victoria Forester, and after the two witness a falling star he pledges to fetch it for her in exchange for whatever his heart desires. Though it has landed beyond the wall, Tristran will stop at nothing to fulfill his oath and win Victoria’s heart. This is complicated, however, when he finds that the fallen star is not a celestial rock, but a beautiful young woman named Yvaine, with no interest in coming back with him.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, this book reads a lot like a fairy tale. The obvious elements such as the fantastical characters and enchanted lands are really just the surface level. The writing style itself captures the feel of such a tale, expanded upon for the context of a novel and given more modern sensibilities. The narrative style was most uniquely adept at walking the line between making the reader feel intimately present with characters and telling us the story in a way akin to oral tradition.
At one point we are more intimately present during a moonlight meeting between two lovers, for instance, while later on Tristran’s escapades on an airship are told to us, but we don’t get an especially substantive look at his time there, despite how important we are told it is to his growth. These two storytelling styles to merge quite seamlessly, and certainly do make the book feel more like a fable, but I would have preferred feeling more intimately connected with the characters more often.
The world is definitely the most wonderfully realized thing about this book. We are only really shown a glimpse of what it has to offer, but something about all of the characters, places, and things felt so rich to me that it was rare I didn’t find some concept or detail to delight in, whether fanciful or more macabre. Gaiman does a great job of planting seeds that hint at how things will turn out, in a way that’s not too obvious yet still noticeable if you’re fairly genre savvy.
The world is occasionally tongue-in-cheek as well, suggesting to me that Gaiman is reveling in the idea of a fairy story as much as he is faithfully crafting one. At numerous points it is suggested that much of the wildlife are just people turned into animals, looking for a way to break the curse, leaving one to wonder how many natural animals there really are. Another simpler moment had Yvaine uttering a pained “ᶠᵘᶜᵏ” after falling to the Earth, dispelling some of the wonderment to allow her to express herself earnestly. I liked the way that Gaiman reshaped and played with the storytelling tradition in moments like these.
Another more surprisingly, but not unwelcome, aspect of the story was how risqué or suggestive it could be. I had expected the book to be more chaste and sentimental with its romance, but sex plays both implicit and explicit roles that felt more honest about the roles it plays in romantic entanglements. It’s never anything gratuitous in its details, nor did it ever seem to occur simply for its own sake, but some occasions may cause the reader to blush.
Though I feel it could have gone a little further with its themes, this book makes an appreciable effort to challenge typical fairy tale tropes where women are treated like prizes to be won or captured. By the end Tristran gains a healthier attitude toward other people, though I do wish his learning experience had been brought more to the forefront. I really liked the way Tristran’s reunion with Victoria played out towards the end, but I could have done with his relationship with Yvaine being given more attention.
What I found most disappointing about this novel was after a certain point, with a fair amount of story left to tell, it became nearly bereft of conflict. The antagonistic characters come up against each other, but for Tristran and Yvaine they make the final hike of their journey in relative safety. They had both warmed to each other as well, so friction between them was no longer a concern either. The story did pick up a little by the end, with Tristran’s return to Wall, but I just it had all been building to something a little more climactic. I was left with the prevailing sense that their remaining journey was not too difficult, just long.
Stardust is by no means a bad novel, but I was hoping for a little more from its story. The world and characters are fairly well-realized, but the story itself needed a little more substance for me. What I actually do like, despite all my criticisms leading up to it, is the very ending of the book. It’s not particularly happy or sad, but poignant in a way that has stayed with me unlike anything else in the book. Certainly worth checking out, it may tick more boxes for others than it did for me, but it’s not a Gaiman novel I’d prioritize over others.
My Rating: 3 out of 5