Coming down off acid can sometimes be a stressful experience. It doesn’t help when you’re stuck in a Birmingham airport for five hours. Looking for something to do and trying to quiet the feeling that my brain was being gnawed on I spotted a stranger with a book. Interesting cover, nice title, I was intrigued and wrote it down. I promptly forgot about it until I went to my local library and found it sitting on the English section. This review is not about that book, but I thought it would be a shame to waste the story. This is about Neil Gaiman’s Stardust. It’s a damn good fairy tale for adults that manages to be familiar and fresh all at once.
Neil Gaiman is very good at telling stories. He is also very good at writing novels, but it is his story-telling that makes him stand out from other great authors. Stardust is an excellent example of his work. It has all the right elements of a real fairy tale. The Hero embarks on a Journey into Faerie in order to fulfill his Heart’s Desire. Along the way he finds a Hidden Talent and runs afoul of Various Enemies. He eventually succeeds in his Quest, but not before learning a valuable Moral and growing as a person. The plot is well-known, but it feels like an homage rather than unoriginality. Of course there is never any doubt that the Hero will eventually succeed, but as with so many things it is about the path taken and not the destination.
Gaiman has a real talent for blending the real and the unreal. Like most of his novels, Stardust begins firmly in the world as we know it and fleshes out the mundane life of the protagonist. By beginning in a familiar place, Gaiman creates a connection between the audience and the protagonist which is exploited to fine effect when the fantasy hits. It starts subtle, allowing the reader to hope along with the characters in the book that maybe magic is real. The Hero then enters another world and is completely cut off from the life they knew; magic is real, but it is not supposed to be in our world. The end of the book touches back with reality just as the reader must and leaves the reader with a sense of “What just happened?” It’s a bit like an acid trip. Everything is real in the moment, but there is always that doubt/hope after the fact.
I’m not sure if I wish this book was longer. As it is, it is concise and to the point, with enough story to keep it interesting. This is certainly not a story for a trilogy and ultimately this kind of story is best served short and sweet. However if you are longing for meaningful character development and interpersonal conflict I would recommend another book. It is not that Gaiman is unable to write these things, it is simply that as a faerie tale it is much more focused on providing fodder for the imagination to run wild. Still there are several parts of the book that could have been made more dramatic and touching if more effort had gone into fleshing out the characters involved.
Overall it is a fun book and a refreshing example of a faerie tale. It is a quick and easy read with plenty of creative scenery and characters. The respect it has for the traditional faerie tale is appreciated and put to great effect in modeling and playing off the expectations of the reader while never falling into stagnancy. It excels in describing the split between the real world and Faerie and does so in a way that hints of conspiracy. Sometimes it feels a bit light in the development of characters’ emotions and relationships, but this does not detract overmuch from the otherwise very enjoyable experience. Would recommend reading if you’re coming down off acid. And maybe coming up.