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REVIEW: Stardust by Neil Gaiman

REVIEW SUMMARY: Disappointing effort at a fairy tale by one of my favorite authors. This story is filled with good prose, but the plot and character issues sink the book.


BRIEF SYNOPSIS: Tristan Thorn adventures into the land of Faerie to recover a fallen star for his sweetheart. However, he gets far more than he bargains for when he finds he isn’t the only one who wants to find the star.


PROS: Gaiman can write and his use of language is excellent

CONS: Plot is wildly disjoint, and strangely most characters are uninteresting and unimportant.

BOTTOM LINE: I’d give this story a pass.

I’m overall a big fan of Neil Gaiman. I liked Neverwhere, Good Omens, and American Gods. I loved Sandman and Marvel 1602. He has to be one of the best writers of dialog of his generation. And all that ability is on display here. But sadly, I felt the plot and characters didn’t work. But then, there is something odd about this work. Is it a comic? Or a novel? The one I read and have in my hand is certainly a novel, but then I see it was first published as a graphic novel with illustrations by Charles Vess (an illustrator on Sandman and Spider-Man.) Perhaps that’s a better way to enjoy the story? The images might make the characters come to life in a way they don’t in the novel. I saw another reviewer state he felt he was reading an outline for a book that was flushed out with descriptive paragraphs, and I agree. Perhaps that comes from converting a graphic novel into a novel? Gaiman does describe the characters and environment well, but because of the two-dimensional nature it feels wasted.

I reread my review of Neverwhere and see that I had some issues with the characters there, so perhaps they aren’t his strong suit? Strange, because Sandman has some fantastic characters. In this book, there are several that were meant to be special and interesting, but just didn’t work. The main antagonist, the witch-queen, ends up fizzling out rather than being a true threat. Her motivation simple (kill star, use life energy) and she is certainly mean. But despite one incident she is a threat that never materializes, and at the end just disappears. There is another character who I thought was supposed to be a major influence. A cloudship captain shows up while fishing for lightning bolts, helps them, and disappears without much impact. There are some murderous brothers vying for their father’s throne who kill each other, but despite the fun of them sniping at the living as ghosts you don’t really care about them. The main characters are too simple and too naive, seeming to go forward without thinking.

And the plot is weak, just wandering and meandering without seeming to care where it goes or what happens. There are some exciting parts where the characters encounter a threat, but there’s plenty of time where nothing happens but just walking along. There are side encounters that mean nothing, and the entire first chapter of the book (where I’m willing to accept some setup and exposition) goes on far too long and tells a whole story that ultimately doesn’t matter all that much. And finally, the book ends without a climax, with all the drama evaporating.

Even though I finished the book just 2 days ago, I found I couldn’t remember much of it. So that’s my take on it – it is an unremarkable effort overall. If you’re interested, I’d skip the novelization and read the graphic novel instead – at least then you’d get to see Vess’ art.

12 Comments on REVIEW: Stardust by Neil Gaiman

  1. I read Stardust and Neverwhere around the same time that I watched the movies (mini-series for Neverwhere). The books seemed to be adaptations of the movies instead of the other way around. I think Neverwhere the book was actually published after the BBC mini-series aired.

  2. I haven’t read Stardust yet, but I always thought it was tragic that they started printing it without the Vess illustrations…

  3. I have to agree with you on Stardust. It was just an okay story and that’s about it. I much rather his stories in “Smoke and Mirrors.” There were some really great stuff in that book. Like the story about the angel of Vengence, “Murder Mysteries.” Ah, then you see the power of Gaiman’s writing.

  4. Edward Milewski // August 28, 2009 at 12:52 pm //

    I believe the main character’s name is actually Tristran and not Tristan as in the movie. I enjoyed the book and thought it great fun.

  5. I thought it worked — and failed — pretty neatly in accordance with the fairy tale story it’s supposed to be, the sort of fairy tale that might have been written in the 1920’s (which is when Gaiman said the narrator/author was writing it). And I think that the best way to enjoy Stardust is to either hear it read out loud, or to read it out loud. I read portions of it to my wife, and enjoyed the scenes all the more.

    And I agree with Gabriel: I really wish they’d managed to keep the Vess illustrations in the print edition. Because those were gorgeous.

    Ah well. Sorry you didn’t like it, Scott. I’m glad you at least read it. 🙂

  6. euphrosyne // August 28, 2009 at 1:46 pm //

    I see it was first published as a graphic novel with illustrations by Charles Vess…Perhaps that’s a better way to enjoy the story?

    You nailed it right there. Reading the original graphical novel-esque format is a fundamentally different experience that reading it as pure prose. Any time the topic of the story comes up, the first words out of my mouth to those who haven’t read it are: make sure you read the edition with the full color illustrations; don’t bother reading it otherwise.

    A very poor decision on the part of the publisher.

  7. Matte Lozenge // August 28, 2009 at 2:42 pm //

    Stardust is one of Gaiman’s finest books. It’s my favorite of his works along with Neverwhere. I haven’t seen the illustrated version but I’d love to get a copy. This page has cover shots of all the versions.

  8. @Matte – Might I ask what about it makes it his finest books?  And just as a point of comparison, have you read any of his other books?  I don’t mean to argue, I merely wonder what makes it a good book to you.

    By the way, you aren’t alone.  There are hundreds of 5-star reviews on Amazon,  so it certainly appeals to many.

  9. Matte Lozenge // August 28, 2009 at 8:11 pm //

    Gaiman did a good job of creating a fresh take on well-worn fairy tale themes. Every fantasy world has a set of rules, and Stardust’s was inventive and engaging. The characters, I agree, were not especially unique, but even now I can remember them as presences in my memory, archetypes of a slightly twisted sort.

    Stardust had a basic quest and maturation plot, but laced with unsettling themes of servitude, bondage, interfamily assassination and vampirism. Unlike most fairy tales, there was no crashing gory climax and vanquishing of evil, but a gentler settling of accounts that draws the book to a delightful conclusion.

    The book possesses a certain purity of expression. It has the feel of one-of-a-kind work of craft, like a hand tooled leather vest or an inlaid chair. I rank it as one of the best contemporary fairy tales, alongside books like The Princess Bride.

    Have read all of Gaiman’s novels except The Graveyard Book, which I’m looking forward to.

  10. Matte Lozenge // August 28, 2009 at 8:13 pm //

    Jeez, sorry about the Microsoft crap.

  11. No worries, Matt.  I removed the formatting nonsense.

  12. Matte, I think you’re confusing a fairy tale with a high-fantasy sort of novel. “clashing gory climax and vanquishing of evil” sounds more like Conan, or Kull the Conqueror than it does Stardust, or other fairy tale stories.

    I mean, I also like Stardust a great deal, I’m just not sure that that is putting us on the same page. I think it’s a lovely little story — and as above, I think it is properly told with Vess’ illustrations. I think it rarely works to argue which is Gaiman’s “best” novel, in that almost everyone has a different choice (I adore American Gods. Lots of people hate it. Or adore it. Or adore something else. Tricky guy, Neil Gaiman).

    I think it works fantastically for what it is. And I actually thought that the movie was, for the casual audience, more useful in that it tidied up the ending. (The ending was not un-tidy in the book on accident, Neil Gaiman pointed out that he wanted everyone and everything missing each other in different ways). The movie tidied it into a movie-ending. Athough I think that it feels like the movie and the book are two different stories based on the same premise, the movie’s a little more neat. If you see what I mean.

    Anyway. The point I was making before I wandered off…I think it DOES work as a Fairy Tale (literally, a story about Fairy) in the same way that something like Jonathan Strange & Mr. Norrell does. It’s a period-piece of writing about English Fairy.

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