Stardust, by Neil Gaiman
Reviewed by Ian Rennie.
OK, I admit it, Iím biased. I hold my hand up and plead guilty on all charges. The fact is I love Neil Gaiman. I have read everything he has written (even back to his early days as author of the graphic novel Violent Cases) and adored all of it. Hell, if he published his shopping lists, Iíd buy them, and probably adore every minute of reading them. That said, Iím convinced that even if I hadnít heard of Neil Gaiman in my whole life, I would have immediately fallen in love with this book. The fact is, Stardust is brilliant. A truly beautiful book which combines love story, fairy-tale and perfectly realised storytelling. The story runs as follows: eighteen years after Dunstan Thorne was given his Heartís Desire, a night of passion with a Faerie maiden; the product of this union departs from the village of Wall to recover a falling star to present to his true love. The problem the our young protagonist, one Tristam Thorne by name, faces, is that the star fell beyond the Wall his village gained its name from, within the land of Faerie. In terms of base idea, this is perfect storyteller fodder, love, legacy, magic and mighty quests all in one package. The resulting novel is handled with grace dignity and more than a little black humour by Gaiman, who truly seems to understand the importance of stories.
In terms of background as a piece, Stardust fits neatly into the literary terrain occupied by Tolkienís minor works (the Ham of Farmer Giles could be the village over from Wall, as could Wootton Major), as well as the magical-Victorian worlds created by Diana Wynne Jones in such books as The Lives of Christopher Chant, in fact it comes as no surprise whatsoever that Gaiman thanks her at the closing of the book. What makes books such as these truly fairy-tales and not fantasies is their tying in with a particular world at a particular time. What fantasy could contain a line such as ĎHad you mentioned magic or Faerie to any of them, they would have smiled at you disdainfully, except, perhaps for Mr Dickens, at the time a young man, and beardless. He would have looked at you wistfullyí, this line, coming after a description of the achievements of the British Isles up to the first half of the nineteenth century, puts the book in a definite place and therefore when it departs from the world, it is from a world we know.
One of the things that makes Gaiman remarkable as a writer is that to my knowledge, he has never written an evil character. A lot of his characters have bad intentions, granted - an episode of The Sandman was even set at a serial killerís convention - but direct evil and the vanquishing of direct evil do not come into it. Gaiman even gives Lucifer another chance, allowing him to resign as prince of hell and run a night-club instead. Stardust is no exception to this rule. Although there are a number of evil or unsavoury characters in the book, a nobleman who poisons his way to power and a witch who wishes to cut out the heart of the star-maiden to gain her beauty are the two most prominent, they all have their motives for their actions and none need to be truly vanquished. The nobleman is killed by the witch, admittedly, but after death he is forgiven by the brothers he kills, and the witch fails to kill the star maiden but is forgiven by her. In a way, this is possibly because, for all his writing of fantasies and far off other worlds, Gaiman is a realist. It is notable that while we have all read books with evil villains in them, few of us could point to someone we knew as truly and irredeemably evil. Gaiman recognises this fact and so places a spark of light inside even the darkest of his characters. This spark of light is possibly the true magic of Gaimanís writing. He may be writing about a gnome frying mushrooms, the prince of hell or an old man in Sunderland who keeps the universe in a jar under the stairs, but his characters are real, believable, and ultimately identifiable. As if this wasnít enough, he even has Tori Amos making a guest appearance as a tree. Stardust is a wonderful, heartening, beautiful fairy-tale which I could read again and again.