Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Review: Stardust, by Neil Gaiman

I listened to Stardust on Audible, as read by Neil Gaiman, who does an excellent job bringing his story to life. And yet, as much as I admired Gaiman's reading, I couldn't help but feel that the story plods along too slowly, with too many detours, and not quite enough excitement. Everything falls into place so neatly and without much suspense. It's all a little too pleasant.

Tristan Thorn lives in the city of Wall, a fictional place in England that separates the "real" world from the "fantasy" world of Faerie. Tristan is in love with Wall's most beautiful woman, Victoria (thought I imagine he has slim pickings in such a walled off town), and sets off to collect a fallen star in exchange for her love. Wall's entrance and exit is guarded 24/7 and nobody is allowed to come or go, yet Tristan gets a special pass. This is because he is not one hundred percent human. His father made love with a faerie woman during a festival many years before, and everybody in Wall except Tristan seem to know this. So the guards allow him to leave.

The fallen star is not simply a hunk of rock and metal, but it takes the form of a young woman named Yvaine. And Tristan is not the only person after her (falling stars are not uncommon in this fantasy world, it seems). The Lord of Stormhold, old as he is, tosses a topaz into the sky, which knocks Yvaine down to Earth, and sets his remaining living sons on task to find the topaz. He who retrieves it will gain Stormhold. That is, if Septimus, the seventh son, doesn't kill them all first. There is also a witch, named Lamia (in the movie), who sets off to collect the star's heart and bring it to her sisters so they can eat it and regain their youth.

While all of the side plots are relatively simple, the problem is that there are too many interruptions to the story. This problem arises right away when the story begins from the perspective of Tristan's father and of his meeting and coupling the fairy. When it switches to Tristan, I couldn't help but wonder whether the story's opening was necessary. Sure it sets up the fact that Tristan is different, but Tristan's half-human, half-faerie quality is barely harnessed. He knows the location of any place if asked, though he doesn't knows how he knows this. And the story breaks often to tell of what the witch is doing, and the point of this only seems to show off her power. And then there's the somewhat amusing plot around Primus, who seeks to avoid assassination from his brother.

There's also the problem that everything is predictable and the resolutions to these plots are anticlimatic. The obvious prediction is that Tristan will fall for the star. Yvaine spews so much hatred towards him when they first meet that you know by the end it will turn into love. Throughout the whole story, neither Tristan nor Yvaine need to lift a finger to get out of any predicament, except once. Tristan is helped all along the way, first by a mole-like creature who provides him a magic candle that allows Tristan to cover lots of ground quickly. The only time Tristan does anything to save himself is by thrusting his arm into fire at just the right moment in order to light the candle and escape the witch. Otherwise there is always some sort of convenience that allows Tristan and Yvaine to skate past danger unharmed. While there is a lot to be said about Gaiman's magical prose, it's the story that's most important, and in this case the story just grows dull.

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