I’m sure many of you are familiar with NPR’s Top 100 Science Fiction and Fantasy chart. I’ve spent countless hours going through this chart in order to add more books to my list of things I probably won’t have time to read before I die.
When you choose the fantasy path on this chart, you could potentially end up with William Goldman’s The Princess Bride or Neil Gaiman’s Stardust, both of which I recommend having simply because one is Neil Gaiman and not owning The Princess Bride is inconceivable! (See what I did? Huh? Huh? Wasn’t that… oh… right, lame, sorry.)
The question that leads to these results depends on where you prefer your pirates do their pillaging and plundering. If you pick the ocean, you get The Princess Bride. If you choose the sky, you get Stardust.
Of course I should have taken a clue from the fact that the former has little to do with pirates being pirates, but come on! There are copies of Stardust with a pirate ship right on the cover!
NOTE: While preparing this post for launch, I’ve noticed that Gaiman himself corrected the chart for categorizing Stardust as a pirate story! Huzzah!
Well, at least it’s written by Neil Gaiman. And as far as I know, he can do no wrong when it comes to crafting a story, right?
Stardust follows the journey of a young man, Tristran Thorn, who is determined to show his devotion to the most beautiful girl in the village of Wall, Victoria Forester. The two witness a star falling from the sky together, and in order to get the lovesick boy to leave her alone, Victoria tells him that if he can find it, then she will do anything he wishes.
Tristran agrees and rushes to search for the star in the mystical land of Faerie.
Unbeknownst to our lovesick protagonist there are 4 other… er… “people” after the star. 3 are the Sons of Stormhold, and one is a witch.
Cue some adventuring, a couple of quick, action-y scenes, and some heartfelt stuff and you have the story. But for the sake of spoiling it for you and for the sake of actually being a helpful review, let’s break it down some.
As mentioned, Tristran is our main character. However, we don’t know this when the story begins. The start of the story focuses on Dunstan Thorn and his engagement to his future wife, Daisy, and how Daisy is not Tristran’s mother. But I’ll focus on that some more later.
While there is not much that’s established during this introduction, it does offer a look into just how alike Dunstan and Tristran are, even though most of the book involves them being away from each other.
Tristran is not what I’d call the most interesting protagonist ever, but he’s not awful either. He’s more a generic, love-sick fool with no real interesting thing about him other than the cards he was dealt at birth. Again, more on that later.
The next major character we meet is Victoria Forester. Tristran’s “true wuv.” She comes off as a snooty young woman right off the bat, and she is the one who sets Tristran’s story in motion with said snooty-ness. She sends Tristran off on the impossible errand to collect a fallen star so he will leave her alone (okay, actually it’s so he will stop asking for a kiss, same thing), and until the end of the story we have no idea if she feels any actual guilt or joy over this. There’s not much to her, either, so a more accurate name would probably be “Plot Device.”
The Lords of Stormhold are next in the line of people you should care about. They are some of the more interesting characters in the book, and most of that spawns from their background. Primus, Tertius, and Septimus are the only living sons of the 81st Lord of Stormhold, who dies before we can care. His other four sons (all named for the number they were born, yes), are all dead as the result of murder. Each sibling was killed by another one of his siblings in their quest to take their father’s place on the throne. On his deathbed, the 81st Lord of Stormhold challenges his remaining sons to find the Power of Stormhold, a topaz stone that marks the owner as the Lord of the Land. Of course it can’t be found if it isn’t lost, so he throws it out a window. It is then found by a common garden slug who becomes the 82nd Lord of Stormhold, so that plot is taken care of right away.
The next characters are The Lilim, a trio of witches who are running low on youth and ways to restore it. They learn of a falling star through divination with goat guts, and because it is common knowledge that the heart of a star is the source of youth, the witches allow the eldest of the group to consume the last of their reserved youth so she can seek out the fallen star.
Starting to see how all of these characters come together? No? Okay… so I kind of lied about the slug. The stone actually hits a star in the sky, which causes it to fall. But really, who throws something like that out of the window? What if it had been found by a slug or something?
Oh, and there’s something about that star that’s kind of important. She’s a person. In the land of Faerie, stars are not just balls of burning space stuff, but are actual people. In this case, a beautiful young woman named Yvaine. She’s my favorite character in the novel after The Lords Of Stormhold, and probably the most interesting and sympathetic character we get. She is injured, upset, and misses her home terribly, like all of us who have been unceremoniously ripped from bed by the call of adult responsibility.
The only real issue I have with this rather eccentric main cast is that there isn’t a whole lot of development to them. The brothers are all out to kill each other, and that is their single defining trait. The witches are after youth, and that’s their single defining trait. Tristran sort of learns and grows, and Yvaine merely does a simple flip in her personality in a way. I never feel like any of the characters are actually undergoing a change due to anything other than plot necessity. Not something I ever condone in my reading, due to the short length of Stardust, I’m willing to let it slide. A little.
I’m a sucker for characters who are all forced to follow the same plot for different reasons. While Tristran and the witch are both directly after the star, the Lords are after the stone that knocked the star from the sky and coincidentally became stuck to her. Having a cast crash into each other due to unrelated motives just makes me smile, and Gaiman does a wonderful job of giving each character their own story, events, and path to that fateful collision. The entire plot revolves around the different reasons people are after the star, and along the way there are quite a few of wacky adventures and daring struggles. Not many, but a few. Tristran finds her first, and after encountering the Lords, the witch, and a cat-girl slave who is Tristran’s real mom who happens to be owned by another witch, he succeeds in getting Yvaine back to the border of Faerie and Wall. There’s certainly action and trickery along the way, and I could discuss that here, but… to be honest, it’s never more than a couple of pages worth, and while it is very well done, it’s standard fare for a fantasy adventure story.
At the end, once reaching the border, Tristran undergoes a little bit of growth when a guilt-riddled Victoria confesses she only sent him after the star to get him to leave her alone, and that she is in love with the man Tristran used to work for. However, she sticks to her promise of giving him what he wants for returning. This is where our little love-sick puppy grows up a little: in a stunning act of maturity, he tells Victoria he wants her to marry the man she loves, and live a happy life with him.
After this, Tristran says goodbye to his family (and reveals that his real mother is a cat-girl), and returns to Faerie to be with Yvaine. But wait, I can hear you not asking, what about the Lords, or the Lilim?
Well, the eldest witch who was after Yvaine starts to revert back to her old age and realizes that she will never have the heart of the star. She resigns herself to her old age, and refuses to return back to her sisters. All of the Lords of Stormhold are killed over the course of the story, leaving no heir to the throne of Stormhold. Or do they?!?!?!?!?!?
Turns out, merely seconds after Tristran reveals he is in love with Yvaine (who loves him as well, and decides maybe she doesn’t have to go back home afterall), his cat-mom also shares a stunning revelation: That she is the only daughter of the 81st Lord of Stormhold, making her son the next heir to the title. Tristran accepts this title, but asks that his mother rule the land while he and Yvaine continue to explore everything, having presumably been bit by some kind of adventure bug. Years later, they return to the palace, ready to settle down and begin their lives as a well-loved noble family.
Oh, and sky pirates/lightning trappers. They’re a thing that’s mentioned for like… one chapter. YOU LIED TO ME INTERNET.
Stardust is a fun evening of reading rolled into an almost pirate-less package. There’s adventure, romance, humor, and that one sex scene that Neil felt would fit right into what is otherwise a children’s fairytale. It certainly has a couple of things that suffer due to the short length, but at the same time, it’s impressive that a story that had so much to offer could be told effectively while only sacrificing one aspect of storytelling. Short, sweet, and mostly to the point, and written by a man who knows a thing or two about making things short, sweet, and mostly to the point (I’m looking at you, Coraline!), Gaiman is once again a pleasure to read. I can’t say that this book is a must-read though; it certainly has a target audience in lovers of adventurous fairy tales, but the more dedicated fantasy buff may be slightly disappointed that Stardust displayed way more potential to be an insane fantasy epic than it was given in the end. The lack of character development that puts it more in line with a fairy tale rather than a major fantasy novel (aside from The Hobbit) is a little off-putting as well.
Still, if you’re hungry for some Neil Gaiman and don’t want to read something the size of Good Omens, you can’t go wrong with something like this.
7/10 Yvaine’s Stars