Every good fairy tale starts with a wish. The little mermaid wishes to walk on land. Cinderella wishes to go to the ball. Maleficent wishes someone would just throw her a fucking bone and invite her to a baby shower. And in Neil Gaiman’s Stardust, all our hero wants is to get the girl.
The other thing every good fairy tale needs is a quest. In this case, the quest is for the heart of Victoria Foster, the most beautiful girl in the village. Our hero Tristran Thorn, promises his love he will cross over The Wall, into the land of the fairies, and bring back a fallen star for her. And off he goes.
But when he finds the star, it’s not a smoldering piece of rock. It’s actually a beautiful young woman called Yvaine with a broken leg, uninterested in becoming the prize in Tristran’s lovesick adventure. But Tristran’s determined to give her to Victoria (who promised him a kiss in exchange for the star) and chains her to him. Together, they make their way back to the wall. On their way they encounter witches and wood nymphs, ghosts and elf-lords, lions and unicorns, and a pirate ship that flies across the sky.
This story could have veered into the unbearably twee, but somehow it stayed the course. It was exciting to wander through Gaiman’s fantastical world, especially when he’s paying homage to the fantasy writers that came before him (Tolkein’s talking trees make a memorable appearance). But where Gaiman truly succeeds is in making that world only a setting. As our heroes escape mythical beasts and malevolent ghosts, my focus remained solely on them. As much as I liked the world, I was more curious about Tristran and Yvaine.
Even though this is unquestionably Tristran’s story, the women take center stage. Yvaine isn’t a delicate being, constantly in need of rescuing. She secretive, unwilling to be an easy prisoner, and the first time we hear her voice, she’s cursing like a sailor. There’s an elven slave who knows more than she’s saying, and witch queens in search of lost youth. It’s an unapologetically feminist fairy tale.
I loved living in this book. I simultaneously didn’t want it to end, and wanted to know how it ended. Of course, fairy tales have to have a happy ending, and this one is no different. But in Gaiman’s story, we know they can’t be perfectly happy for the rest of time. That’s not how this works. Instead, they “were happy together. Not forever-after, for Time, the thief, eventually takes all things into his dusty storehouse, but they were happy, as these things go, for a long while”