Friday, November 29, 2013

Stardust by Neil Gaiman

My Rating: 4.5 / 5.0

Amazon Rating: 4.20 / 5.00
Goodreads Rating: 4.03 / 5.00

Note: I read this as part of a Read Along.   Week 1   Week 2  

The town of Wall is pretty normal, apart from the fact that it is next to the wall that separates our world from the land of Faerie. Every nine years the Faerie Market is held just on the other side and Wall is inundated with the many strange people who want to visit the Market. Dunstan Thorn is a young man eager to experience something a little different, so he goes to the Market where he meets the beautiful Una who is a slave to a witch who sells magical flowers. She gives him a glass snowdrop in exchange for a kiss and tells him to return later. One thing leads to another and nine months later Dunstan is surprised to receive a baby in a basket.

Eighteen years later, baby Tristan is all grown up (at least that is what he thinks) and is madly in love with Victoria Forester. One night they see a shooting star flash overhead and land somewhere over the border in Faerie. In a moment of madness Tristan promises to find it and bring it back to Victoria in exchange for a kiss and possibly marriage. She agrees because she assumes the task is impossible, but Tristan heads into Faerie full of determination to fulfill his quest. Once there he discovers that he is not the only one seeking the fallen star. The dying King of Stormhold knocked the star from the sky by throwing the Power of Stormhold at it, so his murderous sons are competing with one another to be the one who finds it and claims the throne. There are also three witches who want to capture the star as a way to restore their youth by cutting out her heart and eating it. The star herself is not very happy about any of these alternatives and is actually rather cross at being knocked out of the sky in the first place.

Having only discovered Mr Gaiman’s books last year I can safely say that I am rapidly becoming a rather enthusiastic fan of his writing. While Neverwhere was good it suffered from being the novelization of a television series, but The Graveyard Book was one of my favorite reads last year, so I was eager to read another of his better-known titles. I am pleased to report that I found it as delightful and entertaining as I had expected, making me even more certain of my appreciation for this writer’s wit and sideways look at life.

As with The Graveyard Book we have a story that suggests familiar stories and situations and yet presents them in novel and interesting ways. It seems to be a familiar fairy tale and yet none of the elements are actually all that close to the traditional stories that we have all grown up with. Yes, we have a hero who has a quest to fulfill, but he is not exactly heroic at the start of his journey and after that things just get increasingly complicated for him. He has to deal with other competitors for the star and his prize is none too happy about being dragged across the world just because he wants to kiss some girl in his village. Even the Happy Ever After ending is not standard issue, but that is what I have come to expect from Mr Gaiman and he has not let me down yet.

Our ‘hero’ Tristan is really not a hero at all. It is not that he is an anti-hero; just that he is very, very normal. He does not have any superlative qualities or skills; he is actually rather dull and average. He has a huge crush on Victoria, who is the prettiest girl in the village, but he does not LOVE her in the epic way that heroes are supposed to. It is not so much that she is his True Love, in The Princess Bride way of things, but rather that she is the first girl to catch his attention. She is out of his league and is stunningly uninterested, so that all adds to the pangs of longing that his teenage brain transmutes into LOVE writ large. He makes a stupid, melodramatic gesture to ‘prove’ his love to her and she calls his bluff, which is why he heads into Faerie and starts on the path that finally leads him to self-discovery and real love.

He is really quite endearing because he spends a lot of the story being confused about what is going on and why he is even bothering to continue with his journey. It does not take very long for him to realize that he is on a fool’s errand and that it is only his desire to save face that keeps him plodding along. He does the best that he can and has a good heart, which eventually leads him to mature enough to become a rather useful hero who can fulfill his destiny and save the woman he loves. It takes lots of time and many hardships, but gradually the world transforms him into the Prince Charming of the fairy tales.

On the other hand, Yvaine, the star, does not show as much development. When we first meet her she is a furious immortal who has been ripped away from her place in the sky and it takes quite some time for her to calm down and start to notice the world around her. Gradually she begins to accept her changed circumstances and finally she resigns herself to her life within the limitations imposed by living on the ground. Ultimately, hers is a sad and lonely story, but she finds what joy she can in her life with Tristan, making the most of their time together. Her acerbic wit is very refreshing in a world that normally presents the heroine as a useless and drippy bit of froth who serves no purpose but to be rescued by a hunky male. Yvaine has some great dialogue and refuses to take any crap from anyone, so she is very entertaining to read.

As one would expect, the supporting cast is also full of bizarre and entertaining characters. The Stormhold brothers are hilarious in their attempts to murder each other. This is made all the funnier because the brothers that are already dead get to hang around and comment on their living siblings’ lives. This is all very black, but it does allow some wonderful scenes of sibling rivalry that will have you laughing out loud. However, even though they are all murderous in their intentions, the brothers remain relatively sympathetic characters because they are simply competing to become king and do not actually hate one another. I know that this sounds strange, but they simply do not read as evil psychopaths, even as they are concocting the most elaborate plans to kill each other. This is also true of the three witches. Whilst it is true that they want to cut out Yvaine’s heart to eat it, they also display little overt malice towards our hero and heroine. Again, she is a means to an end and this makes them much more interesting because they have a reasonable motivation and their emotional responses extend beyond the typical cackling of the typical insanely evil antagonist.

I could wax lyrical about the other characters, especially the little hairy man and Billy, the goat-turned-man, but I would rather leave them for you to discover for yourself. Whilst this is not quite as enthralling as The Graveyard Book, it is still an excellent read and I would thoroughly recommend it.

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