Written By: Neil Gaiman
Published By: HarperCollins Publishers
Reviewed by Frank L. Ocasio
A humble boy lives in small village. There's an annual festival happening soon. On the day it happens, the boy meets a batty old wizard/batty old man/batty someone. This batty someone shows the boy he has incredible powers and ships him off on a journey to save everyone from some ambiguous darkness.
What you've just read is the formula for a great deal of fantasy novels:
This is a formula that sells books, but a formula that rarely gives you anything new. The hero winds up being a prophesied "Chosen One"--usually in capitals it's so important--he gains control over his power, and he saves the girl. This you always see coming.
Neil Gaiman's Stardust does not follow this formula at all. Sure, it does start off with a humble boy named Dustan who lives in the small farming village of Wall. And yes, there is an annual festival only days away. But Gaiman makes it obvious from the start that he's not going to do something new and unexpected. A good way in, a completely new protagonist takes over after Dustan’s story ends in a completely uncontrived way you won’t expect.
We pick up the story of Tristan Thorn instead, who carries on the theme of the unexpectedly realistic but utterly fantastic with his shenanigans. Shenanigans brimming with an old school feel of mystical fantasy instead of high fantasy’s sword bashing and war waging—in short, Stardust carries the same essence of the mystical as Legend (if you remember Legend) and The Neverending Story. But the driving force isn’t that there’s a war that needs to be won or a darkness flooding the land; it’s that Tristan is pulled into a fantasy world for the sake of his “lady love,” and somehow, Gaiman keeps the boy’s quest refreshingly realistic. Example—you expect Tristan to meet a gaggle of characters who decide to adventure with him for the course of the book. While he does meet people, they don’t up and decide they’ll roll with him on his journey just because that’s what the author and audience wants. Also—you expect Tristan to quest for 400 pages to find the star that his “lady love” asked him to capture for her, but he finds it in twenty minutes and the quest becomes getting back to her.
Something so innovative is bound to come with some kinks, however. As a result of the unexpected realism of the characters’ commitments to Tristan, supporting players who seem like they will have large roles wind up having no real roles at all. The realism also results in a great deal of summary; in three pages, five or more months of Tristan’s life might be summarized, skipping right over transitions in character and so adding a bit of distance between you and he.
Because it feels more like this is intentional, however, it doesn’t truly harm Stardust. The book remains an interesting read with a solid, warm style that just about everyone (save for… possibly high fantasy fan boys?) should find totally wonderful.
One last thing before I quit: There’s a tree in this book who’s based on Tori Amos. Yeah. So, if you really like Tori Amos a lot, you should read Stardust, just so you can say you did. It’ll be worth it anyway.