Stardust by Neil Gaiman, Review by Corinne Donnelly
While it absolutely pains me to write this, it appears that Neil Gaiman’s work and I are still not friends. His beloved novel, Stardust, is my latest attempt to read (and hopefully enjoy) Gaiman’s repertoire. The novel is an “adult” fairy-tale about a star-crossed young man, Tristran, on a quest to earn a young woman’s hand in marriage. Along the way, he meets many strange characters, most notably a star named Yvaine, and entangles himself in some very dangerous situations. Unfortunately, Tristran’s dull and—dare I say?—vacuous personality pales in comparison to all of the other characters, including the extremely minor ones.
Gaiman’s worlds are always fleshed out incredibly well. He is clearly quite talented at conjuring a magical scene. But when a reader cannot feel engaged by a main character, a gorgeous setting alone will not save a novel. Luckily, Yvaine’s introduction somewhat alleviates this problem. Unlike Tristran, she at least thinks before acting, and cares about more than just herself. Gaiman’s inclusion of a sub-plot involving royal brothers vying for their late father’s throne, and another story-line following a trio of elderly witches seeking lost youth and power also managed to bring much-needed life to a mostly tedious main plot.
On a structural level, Stardust is a bit of a muddled mess. While the main plot unfolds chronologically, it is interrupted from time to time by the subplots. Chapters jump back and forth with wild abandon. While all of the plots do eventually meet as one, until that moment the reading experience is unbelievably jarring. Too much is going on, and of course, if I had the choice to release one of the story-lines, Tristran’s journey would be the first to go.
The adult elements of the novel intrigue and occasionally amuse. And by adult, I mean sex and violence. There is a decent amount of both, and I was pleasantly surprised by how much I appreciated their inclusion. I will say that Stardust is most likely not a novel a parent will feel comfortable reading aloud to a young child. A few topics are potentially a tad too mature for a younger audience to fully comprehend, particularly the enslavement of women, as well as the ruthless murder of family members and innocents.
Most disappointing of all, the ending fails to make much of an impact. The adult moments within the story, while interesting, never seemed to have a point beyond just shock value. Maybe I misinterpreted their addition in the plot, but I was hoping for some element of deeper meaning or even just realism to rear its ugly head, but neither happened, and I finished the novel highly underwhelmed.
Neil Gaiman’s Stardust is not for everyone. While his descriptive writing and elaborate world-building remain enviable, many of the characters and their exploits fail to intrigue. Luckily, Gaiman’s work is popular enough that I don’t feel too awful when I write that I wouldn’t recommend this novel. I’m also not giving up on him yet! Here’s to hoping American Gods will save my streak of disappointment.