My experience with Neil Gaiman is relatively limited: Odd and the Frost Giants and the audio production of The Graveyard Book. Stardust is a very interesting third to add, and all the more so given that I have been reading the version illustrated by Charles Vess.

Gaiman Vess Stardust

1997; DC Comics, 2007 Illus. Charles Vess

Many of my senses have been engaged and, so, I have the idea based solely on these works, that Neil Gaiman’s works exist well beyond the page. (A scratch-n-sniff option for this story might have been interesting!)

1.  We have spent a little time with Tristran and even less time with the star.  What are your initial thoughts/impressions of our two protagonists?

Tristran strikes me as maybe stubborn or, at least, determined, but possibly simply impassioned, and maybe naive or inexperienced, but possibly a bit dim.

Nonetheless, he seems quietly resourceful, perhaps more so than even he expects, and curious, which also seems to surprise him a little.

Being “too ignorant to be scared, too young to be awed”, he presents himself as a suitable hero for this tale.

But while her soft-spot for unicorns does endear to me,  overall the star is a mysterious character for me, and I can’t say I was surprised to find that she had left unsuspecting Tristran behind, or even wholly unhappy (for a chase-scene makes for a better tale) but I was disappointed on Tristran’s behalf when he got that sick, stupid feeling in his stomach.

The mystery which surrounds her is a huge draw for me as a reader however; of the two characters, I have more questions about her, and I feel like I want to understand her better (which is perhaps a reflection of Tristran’s curiosity and interest too).

2.  There are some very interesting potential villains introduced in this first half of the book.  Do any of them particularly stand out to you? If so why or why not?

At the beginning of The Graveyard Book, I was smacked by the idea of the perfect villain, but I don’t have that sense of simple satisfaction with Stardust at this point.

Sure, the heir with variations on a death for his brothers is clearly driven by selfish motives, but most of the characters who make me nervous (especially those of Faerie) also seem to be connected with an idea of balance-in-the-world or balance-between-the-worlds that I don’t think I understand yet, so I am suspicious but unsure at this point.

I also have my own biases to sort out (the minute we met the small creature with the hairy voice — love that though — I thought perhaps he was going to cause trouble despite his good manners), so I’m just enjoying the variety of intentions that I’m discovering so far.

(“I hope I’m not disturbin’ you,” said the voice, which certainly sounded rather hairy, now Dunstan thought about it.”)

Nonetheless, the characters who most intrigue me, who appear threatening at this stage, are the Lilim.

“The three women, and their hall, were in the black mirror.
The three old women were the Lilim – the witch-queen – all alone in the woods.
The three women in the mirror were also the Lilim: but whether they were the successors to the old women, or their shadow-selves, or whether only the peasant cottage in the woods was real, or if, somewhere, the Lilim lived in a black hall, with a fountain in the shape of a mermaid playing in the courtyard of stars, none knew for certain, and none but the Lilim could say.”

3.  In Chapter Three, just after the section with the brothers in Stormhold, Neil Gaiman gives us a description of Faerie that includes “each land that has been forced off the map by explorers and the brave going out and proving it wasn’t there…”.  What imaginary lands do you then hope are a part of Faerie?

I imagine the lands described by Lewis Carroll, L. Frank Baum (including the lands of Oz but also the forests of Burzee in The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus), C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Jonathan Swift, Madeleine L’Engle, Diana Wynne Jones, Susan Cooper, Philip Pullman, and Ursula K. Le Guin would be there. I like the idea of a passport for those places, especially the settings for the stories which are more contemporary, for there’s more room for female characters (like me!) to explore/enjoy them.

4.  We do not get to spend a great deal of time in the market but while there we are given a number of interesting descriptions of the wares being bartered or sold.  Which if any of them caught your eye, either as items you would like to possess or ones you would most certainly hope to avoid.

This is my favourite scene in the novel, for even though it is largely a backdrop for the action that plays out against it, it is so infused with magic and possibility that I just wanted to sink into the pages which described it. (And even better that Charles Vess had a double-spread to illustrate it: I bet that was a lot of fun to conceptualize and I really wish I could draw well!)

As I child, I would have instantly coveted the crystal cat that comes alive when Dunstan picks it up; now that I am old enough to have my own furry companions, I would choose them over such an uncuddly critter, but a pocket-sized version of a wild animal still holds a certain appeal (an elephant would be nice).

I would also like a new set of eyes, for I have worn mine out with too much bookishness. And although I am not terribly fond of lavender (it’s nice enough but not a favourite), I would ask at that stall whether they have Everlasting Jasmine or Everlasting Honeysuckle instead.

I would be afraid of the storm-filled eggshells, for it seems as though they might require some tending, and I have not had very good luck with tending to houseplants or garden plants.

5.  If you have read much of Gaiman’s work, particularly his short fiction, then you have come across some rather graphic and disturbing portrayals of sex.  Gaiman offers up something very different in the way of a sex scene early on in Stardust.  What are your feelings of the scene either in general or as a contrast to other Gaiman-penned scenes involving sex?

If this is common, clearly I have been reading all the wrong Gaiman! Neither Odd nor the Frost Giants (nor any of the graveyard folk) indulged in any lascivious behaviour on-the-page, so I was simply surprised to find this scene.

(Up until that scene, I’d been thinking of using this as a read-aloud with my daughters, but I think a couple more conversations on targeted subjects are required before that can happen! If I’d read this when I was twelve, I would have tucked the book beside my bed and found the mysteries of this scene as intriguing as the unknowns of the quest story, reading and re-reading to unravel the intricacies of this union. as it applies to the characters’ lives, sure, but how it might apply to my own burgeoning-lustful-near-teenage-self too.)

My hunch is that the enchantment in this scene with Tristran’s father is part of what drives Tristran later as well (unbeknownst to him, perhaps), so that it might be a very important scene if one had a broader understanding of the story, but, at the very least, the collision between two worlds is worthy of the detail herein.

6.  I suspect Neil Gaiman is influenced by a number of fairy and folk tales in Stardust.  Are there any elements of the story that made a particular impression and/or reminded you of other fairy stories you have read or are familiar with?

I got a good giggle out of the reference to “The Little Mermaid”. Stories within stories, I love that!

“’They’ll undoubtedly disagree with you, like the fishwife who disagreed with her young man over a mermaid. And that could be heard from Garamond to Stormhold. Such language! It fair turned my ears blue, it did.’ The little hairy personae sighed deeply.”

But overall I wasn’t struck by specific references to particular works, but the general sense that it is a tale with a tradition behind it.

The emphasis on the importance of dreams and the possibility that the familiar can alter into something wholly unexpected (even, we might say, unnatural or impossible) pulls me in immediately.

As when Tristran’s mother, who comes from Beyond the Wall, explains:

“I gain my freedom on the day the moon loses her daughter, if that occurs in a week when two Mondays come together. I await it with patience. And in the meantime I do as I am bid, and also I dream.”

Or as when Tristran sets out on his journey:

“As he walked, the chill of the night grew less, and once in the woods at the top of the hill Tristran was surprised to realize the moon was shining brightly down on him through a gap in the trees. He was surprised because the moon had set an hour before; and doubly surprised, because the moon that had set had been a slim, sharp silver crescent, and the moon that shone down on him now was a huge, golden harvest moon, full, and glowing, and deeply colored.”

Or the idea of a magic (bottomless) sack:

“His breakfast companion had packed up the morning’s breakfast – fire, pans and all – and made it vanish into his pack.”

The language and structure also hearkens back to the collections of tales that I read as a young girl, even with the chapter headings, as with the third: “In Which We Encounter Several Other Persons Many of Them Still Alive, With an Interest in the Fate of the Fallen Star”.

And the sense of timelessness (which echoes the idea of Faerie’s incomprehensible size):

“The squirrel has not yet found the acorn that will grow into the oak that will be cut to form the cradle of the babe who will grow to slay me.”

I’m looking forward to discovering which specific tales are alluded to, especially as those readers who are re-reading will be even more likely to identify these, as I feel like I’m missing a lot while rushing along to find out what happens.

7.  And finally, which of the many side characters introduce have caught your eye and why? Or what else about the story thus far is of interest to you?

I am curious about the inn-keeper, and I want to see how the plot with the Lords of Stormhold knits together with Tristran’s story. But most of all, I just want to know what happens. This feels like a story which could go on forever…

“A man could walk, only stopping to sleep, while the moon waxed and waned above him a half a dozen times, crossing treacherous mountains and burning deserts, before he reached the place where the star has fallen.”

…and I’m just happy to allow it to play out as the author wishes. The reading experience reminds me of the way that I felt when reading Suzanne Collins’ Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell and the stories in the volume which followed it; I loved every minute of the reading, simply because I did not wish to leave that world on the page.

Part Two (Chapters Six through Ten, Epilogue)

1.  In the first part we saw a naive, wool-headed and self-involved Tristran.  What are your thoughts about Tristran and his personal journey now that the book has ended?

Tristran’s travels echo my favourite Ursula K. Le Guin quote: “It is good to have an end to journey toward, but it is the journey that matters in the end.” He grows in every way throughout his quest, and I feel a little guilty now for having thought him a bit dim, when he was clearly only inexperienced.

2.  The star, who we now know as Yvaine, also experienced a transformation of her own.  So I ask the same question, what are  your thoughts about Yvaine and the journey she took?

Of all the characters in this story, Yvaine was the one I most reluctantly connected with; perhaps because I have never met a star before, or perhaps because her characterization is kept alluringly sketchy in the first half of the story so that readers are swept away by her emergence in the second half. Either way, I found her increasingly intriguing, and I wish there was a sequel which covered the later years in her life.

3.  The villains of the story came to interesting ends, but not necessarily expected ones.  How do you feel about Neil Gaiman’s handling of the Stormhold brothers (who had remained at the end of Part 1) and the two witches, the one Lilim and Ditchwater Sal?

Wasn’t it surprising when the final brother is dispatched? I was sure there would be one remaining. (One brother to…) The mere idea of a witch called Ditchwater Sal still tickles me. I was expecting the villains to be a little more complicated,but, in the end, it’s as clear as it was in The Graveyard Book.

4.  Were there any descriptions, characters, settings, plot threads that stood out to you personally during this second half of the book?

I’d’ve loved to have spent more time on the Freeship Perdita. If there was a separate volume which considered that aspect of the plot in more detail, I’d happily read it. As for descriptions, I love the story’s final paragraph, not only the image it creates but the language of it: all those commas, so perfectly placed, pure storytelling.

5.  At the very end of the book we see that Tristran and Yvaine’s relationship and fate echoes that of Aragorn and Arwen from The Lord of the Rings.  If this question makes any sense to you (lol), what comparisons and/or contrasts do you see, especially in the fates of Yvaine and Arwen?

Yvaine’s endurance echoes Arwen’s, and I wonder if perhaps the screen version of Stardust affords Yvaine a more prominent role in it from the start (just as Peter Jackson’s trilogy gave Arwen more play throughout), rather than allow almost half the book to unfold without its heroine on centre-stage.

6.   What are your overall impressions of the story now that it is done?

That it is well told and I need to read more of Neil Gaiman’s stories! I just read his introduction to Martin Millar’s The Good Fairies of New York and even that was stuffed with a love of story (his own love of Millar’s writing); I am well on my way to adding his name to my list of Must-Read-Everything authors.

7.  If Gaiman were to return to Wall/Faerie, would you take another journey there?  If so, are there any adventures hinted at in Stardust that you would like to see Neil expand on?

As previously mentioned, the time on Perdita. I’d also like to know more about Lilim. And because I loved linked short stories, I would love a collection based entirely on the goings-on of the market, all the characters therein who meet every nine years.

Thanks to Carl for hosting the readalong and nudging this novel onto my stack of Once Upon a Time reading.