Sunday, January 18, 2009

Book Review: Stardust by Neil Gaiman

Tristran Thorn, at the age of seventeen, and only six months older than Victoria, was half the way between a boy and a man, and was equally uncomfortable in either role; he seemed to be composed chiefly of elbows and Adam's apples with a constellation of acne-spots across his right cheek. His hair was the brown of sodden straw, and it stuck out at awkward, seventeen-year-old angles, wet and comb it howsoever much he tried. He was painfully shy, which, as is often the manner of the painfully shy, he overcompensated for by being too loud at the wrong times. Most days Tristran was content--or as content as a seventeen-year-old youth with his world ahead of him can ever be--and when he daydreamed in the fields or at the tall desk at the back of Monday and Brown's, the village shop, he fancied himself riding the train all the way to London or to Liverpool, or taking a steamship across the grey Atlantic to America, and making his fortune there among the savages in the new lands. But there were times when the wind blew from beyond the wall, bringing with it the smell of mint and thyme and redcurrants, and at those times there were strange colours seen in the flames in the fireplaces of the village. When that wind blew, the simplest of devices--from lucifer matches to lanter-slides--would no longer function. --Excerpt from Stardust by Neil Gaiman Most of you probably know about Stardust by now. You have either read the book or seen the movie (while different, both mediums portray the same basic points, with some minor deviations). Stardust is the story of Tristran Thorn, an inhabitant from the town of Wall whose mysterious birth is only the beginning of an exciting, cross-generational adventure. You see, Tristran's mother isn't from the town of Wall, or from anywhere you and I have ever been. She's from beyond the wall that lies on the edge of Wall, from a world of magic and fantasy. Tristran, however, is very much from our world, in love with one Victoria Forrester (who is far less of a stuck up wench as she is in the movie), and generally not at all hero material. But, as young love usually goes, Tristran makes an outlandish promise to Victoria after a shooting star lands beyond the wall: in exchange for his Heart's Desire he will bring back that fallen star and present it to her. And thus begins the adventure. Something tells me I should have read this book a long time ago--my fiance will claim credit, because she rightly deserves credit for getting me to read this book. Stardust is a modern fairytale that merges the dark reality of the Grimm Brothers with the charming feel that comes with the territory. Another way to describe it is to say that it's a novel that tries to bring the frivolity of fairytales into the modern world by making it much more than just a story. Tristran's journey is one into manhood as he goes from being a pimply, shy youth to a full-grown, well-into-his-own young man. But I don't think Tristran is all that makes this novel so charming. True, his journey is wonderful--meeting Yvaine, falling in love, growing up to become a better person, etc.--but coupled with Tristran and Yvaine is the fantastic world that Gaiman has created. This is a world of unicorns, witches, evil kings and princes, and flying ships. The depth provided in such a small book (194 pages) is really quite astonishing. Gaiman has pulled together a fantasy world that feels real despite its leanings towards the fairytale feel. I think this is particularly admirable considering what Gaiman's novel is trying to do: bring the fairytale into the modern. To some extent you can say that Gaiman's novel isn't even a single tale, but a connection of multiple tales. After all, there are multiple stories going on behind the scenes: the witch story, the Stronghold story, and the story of Tristran's mother. These stories have their own conclusions, some of them directly related to Tristran, and some not, but all interconnected with Tristran either through his mother or through Yvaine (the star). Of course, the conclusions to these alternate stories are left out of the movie, or altered to be more interesting to a visual audience, but in the novel they add different elements to an already fascinating story--some of alterations make sense and others make you realize that the book really is quite better (but the movie was still darn good for what it was, which is more than I can say for other movies based on books, *cough* Eragon *cough*). With all that said, all the dark, somewhat macabre imagery, the fairytale feel, the characters, and even the love story (especially the love story, for personal reasons) drove this one home for me (home being that place where books I will always remember go). It's a beautiful story and for someone who hasn't read Gaiman I think it is a great introductory novel. I see now why Gaiman is such a fantasy visionary. Stardust is simply a fantastic novel, no pun intended, and if you haven't read it, I recommend you do. There's not much else I can say to praise this one enough. I can't even say I see anything necessarily wrong with the novel, because once you get into it, everything else seems to fall away and it feels almost as if you're actually there, watching from above as everything goes on below you. Too bad Gaiman's world isn't real, because I would love to ride on a unicorn myself.

13 comments:

SQT said...

You know, I have no idea how it happened, but I haven't read this or seen the movie. I have the book though. Sounds like I need to read it.

Great review!

Memory said...

Great review! This one just crept a little higher up my TBRR (To Be Reread) list.

Susan Dunman said...

For those who like audiobooks, this is a winner in audio format, too. Neil reads his own work and does a fantastic job. The way he voices the witches, ghosts, and well, every character, is a delight to hear. Enjoyed your review very much!

Ellira said...

You know, I'm a massive, enormous, ridiculously huge fan of Gaiman, and yet his voice scares me somehow ...

But yes, Stardust is the best. :)

furiousBall said...

i loved stardust and really liked the series neverwhere. might have to check this out

Charles Gramlich said...

I wanted to like the movie but ended up pretty disappointed.

LoopdiLou said...

I suggest you read American Gods next. It's more of an Urban Fantasy.. I also truly enjoyed (as did the girls) Gaiman's illustrated children's books and you should totally check them out next time you're at a bookstore.

And I'm glad you at least realize the book is better than the movie (as much as I enjoyed the movie, even).

S.M.D. said...

Thanks all for saying it was a good review. Glad you all enjoyed it. And anyone who hasn't read it, buy it! :P. It is a wonderful book. I finished it on a train and almost missed my stop because I was so engrossed.

Sullivan McPig said...

Great review. This is a Gaiman book I haven't read and just got this weekend so will read it asap.
I agree with LoopdiLou: if you loved this one try American Gods next, it's truly an amazing book.
And if you're into comicbooks I can advise you to read his Sandman series too.

Carl V. said...

What a wonderful review of a magical book. It is such an incredibly realized story.

"The depth provided in such a small book (194 pages) is really quite astonishing."

You are correct! There is so much there on each and every page that I discover new things each time I read it or listen to it on audio (which is another great pleasure!)

I am not a fan of the film. I enjoyed it the first time but that enjoyment soon turned to frustration as I spent time thinking about the things they changed or added that did not need to be changed. And I'm not talking about the kinds of changes that have to be made to books to translate them to films, I understand that, but little changes that were nothing but annoying were the ones that bothered me most. It was an okay film, but it is not the book, not by a longshot.

Once again, great review. I appreciated seeing the wonder of the novel through your eyes after your first experience with it.

Avery DeBow said...

I need to read the book. I have a pile of Gaiman somewhere around here that needs going through. I saw the movie--cute, but not too memorable.

If I got on a unicorn there would only be one conclusion to the adventure; some impish mystical creature would run out in front of the unicorn, causing it to start and throw me over its head, landing me directly on its horn.

Capt.Jim said...

Well written, engrossing review. I did see the film but have yet to read the book. I've liked Gaiman's comic book writing but not his novels. Have you reviewed his "American" novel?

S.M.D. said...

Capt. Jim: I have not read or reviewed American Gods. Maybe in the future.