Author: Neil Gaiman (official website; Gaiman's journal; be careful, he enjoys the occasional pun.)
Copyright: 1999, Harper Perennial, New York; ISBN 978-0061142024 (link goes to Amazon)
Length: 248 pages (for the story itself)
Summary: A youth of questionable parentage sets off on a quest to obtain a gift for the maiden he admires. The journey takes him beyond the ordinary world of mortals where he grew up and into the realm of Faerie. Intermingled with his adventure is a witch who seeks youthful immortality for herself and her sisters and a royal family of seven brothers, all of whom have reasons to divert him from his quest. There is a unicorn, an enchanted bird, and a flying ship of pirates as well as assorted magical entities and objects. The young man must manage all these encounters, while avoiding *other* witches and enchanted beings, in order to return to his home and come into his own as an independent being.
Neil Gaiman offers up a deft piece of story-telling, one that recycles and respects the old fairy tale motifs while incorporating humor and originality, the foremost example of which is a falling star who sustains a broken leg upon landing. Gaiman's use of language is entirely modern, but retains a flavor of folk tales; the story structure is clear and easy to follow. Rhythm and pacing of the story is precisely handled. Based on my reading of the book, he understands the function and requirements of the fairy tale and he honors that traditional form.
Excerpt: There are opening passages from Stardust available at Neil Gaiman's official website -- here. I don't think it's an ideal introduction to his prose. As an alternative, I include the following:
Tristran would have explained to her that all he could possibly hope for if he approached the raging beasts was to be skewered, and kicked, and clawed, and eaten; and he would further have explained that, should he somehow survive approaching them, there was still nothing that he could do having with him not even the pail of water which had been the traditional method of breaking up animal fights in Wall. But by the time all these thoughts had gone through his head, Tristran was already standing in the center of the clearing, an arm's length from the beasts. The scent of the lion was deep, animal, terrifying, and Tristran was close enough to see the beseeching expression in the unicorn's black eyes...
The Lion and the Unicorn were fighting for the crown, thought Tristran...
Also relevant: Neil Gaiman wrote this fairy tale for adults; he honors the works of Hope Mirrlees, Lord Dunsany, James Branch Cabell, and C.S. Lewis in this edition's acknowledgment for teaching him that fairy tales can, in fact, be written for adults. Having said that, let me caution prospective readers that he includes two scenes in the text that may offend on the basis of sex and gore. There is one teensy (literally) instance of foul language but given that the epithet is uttered by the star who has just broken her leg in a fall to Earth, the lapse in manners may be forgiven. Gaiman hasn't written high fantasy in the tradition of Tolkien; he has followed in the literary fairy tale tradition of Wilde.
The book has been made into a movie, due to be released on August 10. It stars, among others, Michele Pfeiffer as the witch seeking eternal youth and Robert de Niro as a pirate captain (delicate sigh). If you're so inclined, the official movie site is available with further details. Don't read any of the fan related material you might encounter on the Web in support of the film's release. Those seem to be rife with spoilers. You'll want to read the book before you see the movie. [ Really, trust me on this. In this particular instance, I honestly believe you'll be a happier, healthier human being. You've got a month before its release, which is plenty of time.]
This is a *very* good book. It is a modern day classic of its kind. It is Neil Gaiman's heartfelt expression of the human experience and what more can we ask of an author in telling us a good story?