Monday, April 30, 2012

Dusted With Tiny Stars


Hopelessly crossed in love, a boy of half-fairy parentage leaves his mundane Victorian-English village on a quest for a fallen star in the magical realm. The star proves to be an attractive woman with a hot temper, who plunges with our hero into adventures featuring witches, the lion and the unicorn, plotting elf-lords, ships that sail the sky, magical transformations, curses whose effects rebound, binding conditions with hidden loopholes and all the rest.

I've owned this book for quite sometime, though it's taken Reading With Tequila's group read to finally delve into it. I've also been long overdue, according to certain friends, for reading Gaiman's books. And having seen the movie, I was interested to see how the book/movie stacked up, and if I preferred one over the other. With all that in mind, I dove into Stardust.

Tristran, who I would rename Tristan if I were reading out-loud, was not much of a character to follow. He's a hero of unique and mysterious lineage, who possesses gifts he didn't know he had, and who embarks on a quest of true love without much thought at all about what he might need along the way. Any other book, he'd be dead in two seconds. But here, everything works out for him. It's almost sickening how easy things are for him.

And then there's his prize, the "attractive woman with a hot temper" who he discovers is in fact the fallen star Tristran set out for. When she's first discovered and captured by our hero, she (rightly) refuses to aide him in dragging her away. But a few minutes later, she begrudgingly agrees to join him, hobbling along on a broken leg. That was sure easy. Honestly, for being a person, the star (sometimes called Yvaine) doesn't do much more than an inanimate object. She sure didn't have any more of a personality.

In fact, I'd have to say the most interesting characters were the villains. There's this side story involving seven brothers vying to become the heir to the throne, which involves them all trying to kill each other. And then there's the main villain, the Witch Queen who is out to capture and kill the fallen star in order to regain her eternal youth. These villains are all dark and wonderfully evil, and it was fun to follow them through their dark journeys. Their endings were somewhat disappointing, but not completely unforeseen given the type of story this was.

Oh, yeah. Did I mention this is a fairytale?

Having said all of that, I really can't fault the book for sticking to the fairytale tropes. Having it read to me via audiobook took me back to when my mom used to read me Grimm's Fairytales*. This was a much longer, much more intricate fairytale—one that was obviously written for an older crowd. And yet it had all the same elements that we grew up knowing and loving. The hero who could do no wrong, the fair maiden who was to be his prize, and the villains who we loved to hate and, in some cases, fear.

And make no mistake, this is a fairytale that strives to be just that. It isn't a modern fairytale, it's not a new imagining, a twist, or an expansion on ones you might know. As such, you'll no doubt find problems in characterization, huge coincidences, and conflict resolution if you go at it like it was a regular fantasy novel. This isn't a really a novel in anything more than binding**. So if you're looking for something deeper, you might want to try something else. Perhaps the movie?

I mentioned before that I'd already watched the movie adaptation of Stardust. Honestly, I wish I hadn't. Mind you, I haven't seen it in ages and didn't think I'd remember much at all. But as I read, I found myself remembering quite a bit, actually (primarily the ending). And since I knew/recalled how things fitted together, I'm sorry to say I can't report as a true first-time reader.

However, with my strange combination of reading/hearing the book for the first time while following the story for the second, I can report that I still greatly enjoyed the reading experience. I found the story clever and whimsical enough that I didn't mind re-learning things as much as I thought I might. And really, the language and tone of the book differ so much from (what I remember of) the movie, it's two completely incomparable experiences. Both enjoyable, but definitely different.

And speaking of experience, I think my experience was greatly impacted by the fact that I listened to the audiobook as I read. Hearing another person telling the story instantly brought me back to my childhood, putting me in the right frame of mind. It's said that poetry needs to be read aloud to be experienced properly, and I think some stories are the same way. Fairytales, ghost stories, old legends, all require the right ambiance to evoke the best response, and I think verbal storytelling is the right ambiance. Just something to keep in mind.

Overall, I loved this adult fairytale. I'd recommend it for fantasy lovers who are in the mood for a fun adventure, Brothers Grimm gore, and a teensy bit of romance. There is one sex scene (comprised of two paragraphs) and one F-bomb, along with quite a bit of violence. Still, I think a crafty storyteller could easily make this a great story to read to their kids, so I don't really have an age recommendation. If you're craving something nostalgic, whimsically simple, and with just enough of an adult spin not to feel guilty about it, I'd go pick up Stardust.

Approximate Reading Time: 3.5 hours

*You know, the one where Cinderella's step-sisters chop up their feet to get the slipper to fit and get their eyes pecked out at the end. Or where Snow White chokes on the apple and is revived when the dwarfs drop her on her head. Great bed-time stories, huh?

**Actually, it turns out this was originally released by DC Comics as a four-part illustrated story. I think people seeing that binding would get the storytelling/fairytale reference a lot easier, don't you?

Audiobook Review

Read by Neil Gaiman
Length: 6.4 Hours
Listened at 1.8x Speed

This is one case where I'd not only recommend, but strongly advise listening to the audiobook. I touched on this a bit above, but it really does evoke the storytelling atmosphere that Stardust, or any fairytale for that matter, needs. If nothing else, try having some famous narrator in your head instead of your normal 'reading voice'. But, yeah, the audiobook makes it easier.

Neil was a wonderful narrator. I love when authors choose to read their own stories, because really, who knows their work better than themselves? They know all the inflections, the sarcasm, the questioning tones, and the particularly humorous parts. Gaiman truly gave a whimsy to his fairytale that I think translated it better than even I could in my own head.

But then, I'm always a sucker for an English accent.

What's more, audiobook listeners will be treated to a 20-minute interview following the Epilogue, wherein Niel recounts the origins of Stardust (Did you know it was originally printed as a four-part comic? I know what I'm checking out next.), as well as his thoughts on fairytales, his writing, and much more. I'm sure Gaiman fans would check this out solely for the interview alone.