The magic of fairy tales captivates our youth and manages to stick with us in adulthood as fondly kept memories. Lately, adultified or simply modernized incarnations of classic fairy tales or the fairy tale format has been a popular means by which adults can revisit those classic tales or introduce them to their own children. One author capitalizing off of the world's love for re-imagined fairy tales is Neil Gaiman. His novel, STARDUST is the first that I've read of him and given all the love this guy gets, it goes without saying that I went in with some pretty high expectations. STARDUST is a story written in the style of childhood stories and fables, but it is definitely not written for a younger audience. Gaiman takes the iconic storybook narrative format and embellishes it with richly mature vocabulary, a cast of morally ambiguous characters, and plenty of R-rated content. This is the adult fairy tale I didn't know I wanted, but now that I've read it, I'm very glad something like this exists.
HOW I RATED IT
4/5 A painfully dull opening couple of chapters and excessive use of passive verbage did slightly detract from my overall enjoyment of this work, but as a whole, this is one of the most well-composed and engrossing pieces of fiction I've read and it definitely managed to recapture the charm of fairy tales from my childhood.
Normally, I begin a review with the characters, but since this is a fairy tale and fairy tales are all about the world in which a story takes place, I'll begin with this category instead. The story opens in a small English town known as Wall. It's won this peculiar name because of the impressive rock wall that stands beside it. This wall is all that divides the human world from the lands of the Fairy. The novel never really specifies what precisely is the defining difference between these species, but it seems like Fairy come equipped with certain magical qualities from birth. The Fairy are a far more diverse group of beings than humans in that they come in all shapes, sizes, and anatomical compositions. The world in which they live is equally as varied and in spite of all the fascinating places this book took me to, I still got the impression like there was so much additional terrain that I never even saw. There are dark forests, light forests, quaint forest villages, peaceful brook-side paths, a towering kingdom, and of course, the exotic market fair that serves as the catalyst for the events of this story.
There are a lot of little corners and pockets of this world that make the adventure feel utterly unique. In each area, there are also several key factions that each have their own motivations based off of the section of the world that they live in. It was really cool to get all these different perspectives on the world, making it feel truly alive. The location is also interesting in that it appears to shift around. The rules of geography don't seem to apply here in the way that they do in the human world. Places are always the same but their relation to one another is a bit more fluid. This eerie quality made the space feel even more mystical and added some fun intrigue to the overall tale. If there's one complaint I had about the setting, it's that the town of Wall is just not that great. It does offer nice contrast to the the enchanting world of the Fairy, but it's dullness is definitely a big part of what made the opening chapters so tough to plot through.
The story pulls a bit of a bait and switch on readers when it comes to the main character. It begins with a boy named Dustan Thorn who lives in the town of Wall. We meet Dustan right around the point in time where the world of the Fairy and the Human world intermingle for one day every nine years. This is where he meets a mysterious lady as answer to a promise for being shown what he desires, per a deal with a stranger whom he grants lodging to. Later on, Tristan Thorn, the son of Dustan Thorn, takes center stage as the leading man. He's not quite as handsome or well off with the ladies as his father, but he's got a big heart and is hopelessly in love with a Victoria Forester. Sadly the object of his affections doesn't seem to reciprocate them in spite of all the grand promises that Tristan makes to her. One such promise is to bring her back a star that they see falling from the sky into the lands of the Fairy and he agrees to fetch it for her in exchange for whatever he desires. Thus his foolhardy journey begins.
Fortunately, there's much more going on here than the single quest of a lovesick young man. Readers find out that there are several parties whom are interested in retrieving the fallen star, namely, a group of young princes competing for the throne of their recently deceased father, the king, and an ancient witch who belongs to a trio of hags. For the princes, whomever finds the star can become king, and for the witches, they can use the star to restore their youth. The story actively switches between these different parties which provides some nice variety when it comes to character building and interpersonal interactions. There are also a number of characters that pop up along the way both as guides to the young Tristan and as antagonists to his quest. Demonic, people eating trees, a small hairy man with a big hat and bottomless pack, a ruddy skyship captain, and even a unicorn all play a part in this grand adventure. There's one other pretty important character that I'm leaving out here due to spoilers, but she's also a very cool.
Honestly, the plot is pretty basic but that's kind of par for the course when it comes to fairy tales. The idea of going out and risking one's life based on the whim of a girl and the somewhat obsessive puppy love they have for her is as lame a narrative as you could hope for. Fortunately, Gaiman largely uses it ironically here and never did the main mission feel like it was being presented to me in earnest, even if the main character was hopelessly sincere in his actions. Where much of the depth comes from is how Gaiman moves all of the different characters around, shifting the action from one party to another. Much of the fun for me was in having this constant back and forth of different perspectives. I found that it helped shape the world as well as provide more context to the narrative than I would have had if I was only following Tristan. The other great thing is how neatly Gaiman connects all of the different characters that he's introduced. Everything wraps up neatly at the end in a way that felt rewarding and it was great fun to slowly discover the method to this story's madness. It's this connectivity that made the story feel even more like a fairy tale of old.
But in many ways, this is not at all like the stories I knew as a child. The action is extremely bloody to such an extent that I was pretty shocked at just how graphic Gaiman was willing to take the violence. Many of the characters are quite brutal in both their actions and intents which does make Tristan seem a bit more likable than he probably would be otherwise. Sex and nudity isn't necessarily prevalent, but there is a pretty explicit scene early on.There is also a bit of choice language scattered throughout, but nothing that I'd consider to be all that extreme and it's placed amid the typically innocent dialogue such that the full impact of any non-PG word is truly felt. I also have to wonder if the author doesn't have some sort of fetish with chained up women since the two most prominent female characters are seen bound to their respective captors via the use of a thin, silver chain. I tried looking for some kind of symbolism when it came to this imagery, but didn't come up with a figurative meaning of any kind. There is this idea toward the end that there are different sorts of chains that bind us, but because entrapment/enslavement isn't all that huge a theme in the story's events, that feels like a rather thin straw to grasp at. All in all, suffice it to say that this is a very adult fairy tale indeed.
This wasn't a book that immediately had me hooked, but after a rocky opening sequence, the story really takes off into places that I've never before seen explored. It's magical and whimsical while also bearing the severity of a more adult narrative. The adventure is as wild as one could hope for, the characters are vibrantly depicted, and the world is every bit as enchanting as the fables that I remember from my childhood. I would have preferred more active, snappy prose since the passive voice that denotes many fairy tales just doesn't hold up so well in a full-length novel, but once things got going, I noticed it less and less. STARDUST is both reminiscent of stories I already know and love as well as something new entirely. It's not quite a fairy tale parody in the way that something like SHREK is, but I did enjoy how the story pokes fun at the stories that have inspired it. It's just an enchanting ride that I'd definitely encourage anyone to take.
STARDUST is available in pretty much any format on Amazon.