Neil Gaiman & Charles Vess' Stardust: Being a Romance Within The Realms of Faerie by Neil Gaiman and Charles Vess
Reviewed by Chris Bolton
Back in 1997, when Stardust was first serialized in four monthly trade paperback editions, Neil Gaiman was known primarily as a "comic book guy." Stardust was published by Vertigo, the adults-only DC Comics imprint that helped make Gaiman's name with his groundbreaking Sandman series, and Gaiman's novel Neverwhere, while successful, was considered fairly standard fantasy fare -- and was a novelization of the BBC series Gaiman had written, to boot.
At that time, no comic book writer had successfully crossed over into mainstream prose.
Today Gaiman is best known for writing the huge bestseller American Gods and its follow-up, Anansi Boys, and is about to be even better known for his film work: he co-wrote the screenplay for the upcoming animated feature Beowulf, directed by Robert Zemeckis (Back to the Future, Forrest Gump).
It seems incredible that Gaiman's work hasn't been filmed before now, but the upcoming movie of Stardust -- starring Claire Danes, Michelle Pfeiffer, and Robert DeNiro -- will actually be the first, to be followed by next year's animated adaptation of Coraline, directed by Henry Selick (The Nightmare before Christmas).
That makes this a perfect time to revisit Stardust, which I read ten years ago upon its original publication and have apparently forgotten quite a lot of in the interim. Watching the trailer for Stardust, I was surprised by DeNiro's sky pirate character and thought, There are no sky pirates in the book. I was wrong. (Well, there aren't actually pirates as much as sky merchants, and they appear only briefly in the book, whereas it seems the film will expand their participation greatly... but, still. They're there.)
Stardust is available in several editions. Gaiman's all-text version is sure to delight, but as a Charles Vess fan, I prefer to read the illustrated version, which comes in both the standard trade paperback and a gorgeous oversized hardcover containing a plethora of Vess's sketches, Gaiman's original proposal for the series, and other goodies.
To my surprise, Stardust has held up beautifully; if anything, it has eclipsed my memories and gotten better with age.
A fairy tale for adults, Stardust begins in the sleepy English village of Wall, in the heart of the Victorian era, as a young man named Tristran Thorn pledges his love to the local beauty, Victoria Forester. Amused yet uninterested, Victoria makes Tristran pledge to retrieve a fallen star from the forest. This leads him to pass through the opening in the wall surrounding the village, which leads into the enchanted realm of Faerie.
Faerie depicted in Stardust contains many of the standard fairy tale tropes, given a distinctive spin by Gaiman. There is a unicorn, for instance, but it's an untamed creature capable of skewering a grown human on its own -- which it does. (Take the "adult" part seriously when I call the book a "fairy tale for adults.")
After a brief, colorful journey, Tristran discovers the Star is a beautiful young woman with hair "so fair it was almost white" and "a scowl of complete unfriendliness." He captures the Star and attempts to bring her back to Wall, unaware that his prize is also sought by two other, far more dangerous parties: an old witch who is determined to use the Star to regain her youth, and a pair of brothers vying to rule the land (one of whom has already slain three other brothers with diabolical ease).
I happened to start rereading Stardust during the weeklong build-up to the release of Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, the concluding volume of a series that hasn't interested me since the first book. At Powell's release party on Friday night/Saturday morning, I purchased a copy for my mother, a fan -- and, I confess, curiosity got the better of me, and I read the final chapters to see how it all ended. I'll give nothing away, except to say that I was disenchanted with Rowling's depiction of the climactic battle. Afterward, I flipped Stardust open to one of my favorite passages:
It was night in the glade by the pool and the sky was bespattered with stars beyond counting.
[...] A field mouse found a fallen hazel nut and began to bite into the hard shell of the nut with his sharp, ever-growing front teeth, not because he was hungry, but because he was a prince under an enchantment who could not regain his outer form until he chewed the Nut of Wisdom. But his excitement made him careless, and only the shadow that blotted out the moonlight warned him of the descent of a huge grey owl, who caught the mouse in her sharp talons and rose again into the night.
[...] The owl swallowed the mouse in a couple of gulps, leaving just its tail trailing from her mouth, like a length of bootlace. Something snuffled and grunted as it pushed through the thicket -- a badger, thought the owl (herself under a curse, and only able to resume her rightful shape if she consumed a mouse who had eaten the Nut of Wisdom)...
I'm not about to climb aboard the "My Favorite Writer Is So Much Better than J. K. Rowling" ship, but I confess that Gaiman's wit and cleverness make his work shimmer where Rowling's prose strikes me as dull. The above passage, in particular, hits exactly the right note -- not just because it's surprising and clever, in a manner both sweet and sour (life so often being a comedy and tragedy in the same stroke), but because Gaiman turns the dreaded, scene-setting descriptive passage (which I so often skim) into a vivid delight.
The rest of the novella is every bit as charming and thrilling. Gaiman turns a story of misbegotten love into an epic adventure that never ceases to entertain -- and is all the stronger for its brevity.
What's more, the illustrations by Charles Vess are spectacular. His two-page spreads of the village of Wall and of the skyship port are so intricate and bursting with details that I had to stop and study them for minutes on end before jumping back into the story at hand, promising to revisit the pictures later. Vess is an accomplished artist in any milieu, but he's never more at home than in capturing Gaiman's combination of whimsy and the macabre.
I generally differ from the thinking that the book is always better than the film. In this case, however, I cannot imagine the movie of Stardust fully capturing the pleasures of Gaiman's voice and humor, the dark undertones that make the lightness of his story so much brighter, or the delicate euphoria of Vess's artwork. Whether the film succeeds or fails is irrelevant, actually, so long as we will always have the original novella to enchant us.