Gaiman, Neil

About the Author:

 

Known for both his comic books and his award-winning novels, Neil Gaiman was born in England but now lives in America.

 

AVERAGE REVIEW SCORE:

4.6 out of 5

(14 books)

American Gods

This is the story of Shadow, who is released from prison following his wife's death and finds himself in the employ of a man named Wednesday.  As Shadow and Wednesday travel across America, another world is revealed.  Scraping a living among the people of the modern world are old gods, brought to America in the beliefs of settlers and slaves.  These ancient gods, their power waning as they are forgotten, find themselves threatened by the young gods of modern America, gods of TV and technology. 

This is a book which meanders, and Gaiman clearly feels that the journey is far more important than the destination.  In this case I agree, but if you don't, then don't worry because despite its meandering, the book builds towards a climactic battle between the old gods and the new.  Of the new gods, my favourite element was the spooks, sinister Men-in-Black type characters who represent the height of modern mythology. 

However, it is Shadow's encounters with the old gods that makes for the most compelling reading.  They range from Odin to the spider-god Anansi to the Egyptian gods of death and the underworld.  I was only sorry that my insufficent understanding of mythology meant that I didn't understand some of Gaiman's more subtle references. 

There are also some brilliantly written interludes which reveal how some of these older gods first arrived in America, telling stories of Viking explorers, stone age nomads, African slaves and Cornish thieves.  In short, this book contains it's own mythology, whilst being about the concept of that mythology itself.  At surface level this book is a brilliant story of magic, deception and human nature, but look a little deeper and you'll see that every page is riddled with fascinating metaphors.

5 out of 5

 

Anansi Boys

A sort-of sequel to 'American Gods'.  However, here the main protagonist is not the world-weary Shadow but is the more mundane, and therefore accessible, Charles Nancy aka Fat Charlie.  That is perhaps the most significant difference between the two books; Charlie is a character who is far easier to imagine ourselves in the shoes of.  His fiancee's mother hates him, he has a job he hates working for a prick of a boss and he is unusually susceptible to public embarrassment.  His life changes when his estranged father dies and the brother he never knew he had, Spider, decides to visit.  Slowly Spider takes over his life and Charlie begins to realise that there is something unnatural in his family. 

Charlie's introduction to the world of gods beneath the surface of our own world is every bit as compelling as Shadow's was, but here's it's more personal as it costs him everything he once valued.  I particularly enjoyed the turbulent relationship between Charlie and Spider, as there are echoes of every fraternal relationship, from the rolling on the floor pummelling one another to the standing together to face a shared danger. 

Before I read it I'd heard this was a more child-friendly story, but don't be fooled, this is every bit as adult emotionally-speaking as the previous book.  Overall another astonishing book from a master storyteller, not better or worse than 'American Gods', just different.

5 out of 5

 

Coraline

The adventurous girl Coraline decides to explore the mysterious mirror-world beyond a locked door in her new home, only to discover something malevolent waiting to trap her on the other side. 

This book is the perfect dark fairy tale, with a plucky young heroine finding herself matching wits with a subtle and evil creature in a world where anything can change, usually for the worse.  I loved the concept of the creature beyond the door, 'the Other Mother', which seeks to trap Coraline in order to love her but which mistakes covetousness for love. 

There is some genuine horror in this book, but it is always tempered by the childlike courage and empathy of the main character.  Gaiman has managed to catch a dark dream and turn it into one of the best fairy tales I've ever read.

5 out of 5

 

Eternals

(Art by John Romita Jr., Danny Miki, Tom Palmer, Jesse Delperdang and Klaus Janson)

Med student Mark Curry and professional party organiser Sersi discover that the lives they know are a lie and that they, along with others they meet, are members of a race of beings called the Eternals, tasked with protecting life on Earth in the name of their creators, the Celestials.

The Eternals were originally created in the 70s by comics legend Jack Kirby, who never really intended them to be part of the mainstream Marvel Universe.  Here Gaiman is tasked with updating the Eternals and introducing them to modern continuity in the aftermath of Mark Millar's 'Civil War'.  Now, despite having been reading Marvel on and off for thirty years, I knew next to nothing about the Eternals going into this book.  Weirdly, although it should be the giant godlike Celestials that seem ill-fitting in the Marvel Universe, it was the Eternals themselves who seemed pretty out of place.  This may have something to do with the Celestials featuring in the Marvel movies to a small degree; although if rumours are to be believed the Eternals themselves are to be getting their own screen outing.  If that's the case, then this story would be a good place to start, with Mark and Sersi's discovery of their own secret pasts being the emotional core of the book.

I have to say that whilst being a perfectly adequate Marvel story, this book is totally lacking in the myth and fable sensibilities that I've come to expect from Gaiman, not to mention his humour.  Sure, the Eternals are loose analogues of ancient mythological figures (super-fast Makkari is Mercury, flying Ikkaris is Icarus etcetera), but there's a lack of distinct Gaimanism to the book that disappointed me.  Also, the appearances of Iron Man, Yellowjacket and the Wasp feel shoe-horned in, just so we're clear that this is the mainstream Marvel Universe (Earth-616, if I remember right).

3 out of 5

 

Fortunately, The Milk

Returning from a trip of the shops, a father relates to his children the remarkable adventures he had en route involving aliens, dinosaurs, pirates and vampires (wumpires).

Illustrated by Chris Riddell this is, make no mistake, very much a book aimed at children.  If you're only into Gaiman for the likes of 'American Gods' or 'Neverwhere', then this isn't likely to be the book for you.  However, if you're able to engage with this book on the level its intended, you'll find it really rather charming.

The key element that will likely resonate with adults is the way in which the father's tall tales are recounted.  Not malicious lies, the elaborate stories he tells feel like just the sort of things our own fathers told us all as children and I don't think its a coincidence that Riddell's depiction of the man in question bears a striking resemblance to Gaiman himself.  The impression I got was that this is a book intended for a father to read to his children.

Although the characters and events of the story are all rather silly, there's enough of Gaiman's knowing humour to make this book enjoyable for those adults too.  In particular I liked the thinly-veiled jab at the 'nice, handsome, misunderstood' Twilight-type vampires.

So, childish nonsense, but charming and endearing childish nonsense.

4 out of 5

 

Neverwhere

Richard Mayhew helps an injured girl called Door and soon finds himself drawn into the strange, wonderful and terrifying world of London Below.  Beneath the London he knows Richard undertakes an urgent quest, pursued by two deadly assassins, to help Door uncover the truth of who murdered her family.

Gaiman's great talent is for taking us into magical and macabre worlds lying just beneath the surface of our own and that talent is on full display here.  Anyone who's travelled through some of London's older Underground stations will instantly recognise the feeling of history and mystery that the author instills in London Below.  I found it a brilliant concept that Gaiman has taken that feeling and expanded upon it so that familiar place names and tube stations take on a life of their own as we encounter the Earl's Court, the Black Friars and, most sinister of all, Night's Bridge (I also very much enjoyed seeing where Gaiman goes with the name Elephant and Castle in the bonus short story 'How the Marquis Got his Coat Back' included in my edition of the book).

As well as some fascinating places, we also meet some equally intriguing characters.  Among them are the Marquis de Carabas, a delightfully rogueish scoundrel who you'll adore (but wouldn't trust as far as you could throw), and the villainous Mr Croup and Mr Vandemar.  The latter two characters are among the most charmingly sinister villains you'll ever read of and clearly the inspiration for the Man Jack in Gaiman's later 'The Graveyard Book'.

I'm a big Neil Gaiman fan anyway, but nevertheless I was suprised by just how much I loved this book (and I can't help feeling that Richard Mayhew should meet Shadow Moon and Fat Charlie Nancy one day...).  Incidentally, I should point out that I read the Author's Preferred Text, which Gaiman has edited together out of the original UK version and the later US version.

5 out of 5

 

Norse Mythology

A retelling of the ancient Norse myths which takes us from the creation of the world from fire and mist, on into the time of gods like Odin, Thor and Loki and beyond, to Ragnarok; the death of the gods and the end of the world.

I've always been fascinated by myths and legends, with a lifelong love of the Norse ones in particular, and Gaiman has long been my favourite author (perhaps because he too has an obvious love for these same myths), so to have these stories retold by Gaiman was pretty much the perfect pitch for a book as far as I'm concerned.  It did not disappoint.

What makes the Norse (Scandinavian or 'Viking' for the technically innacurate) myths so interesting is that the have a surprising balance to them.  For every victory there is a loss, for every death there is, after a fashion, a rebirth.  Even within its chief characters there is a wonderfully human dichotomy, with the likes of Loki who is both hero and villain in these stories, or Thor, mightiest of the gods but who is also prone to bouts of stupidity and sulleness.  Where most mythological pantheons focus only on what the gods have done and how they affect our lives now, Norse mythology goes beyond us, into the future, to tell us how it will all come to a crashing end.

Gaiman does a wonderful job of bringing these stories to life, giving them the fairytale feel they need, whilst never sugar-coating the more grim and gruesome aspects of the stories.  He also brings his wonderful wry humour to the table too and for every moment of tragedy which makes you sad, there is an equal moment of humour that will bring a smile to your face.  My favourite is where a grieving Thor is prevented from going on a killing spree by the other gods and instead settles for punting an unfortunate dwarf into the funeral pyre.  The dwarf seems less than pleased when we encounter him again in the afterlife.

A concern I had going into this book was what form it would take.  I wasn't terribly keen to read just a series of story fragments from across Norse mythology; I've read numerous books of that type and whilst there's nothing wrong with it, it's not what I wanted from Neil Gaiman.  Rest assured, however, that although the stories are self-contained, Gaiman has put them together in a flowing progression that means each informs the next and we get a proper narrative journey from the creation of the world to its destruction and on to what comes next.

5 out of 5

 

Odd And The Frost Giants

Odd is the son of a Viking who died whilst adventuring across the seas.  Not fitting in among his fellow villagers, he sets off into the woods and there meets an eagle, a bear and a fox, in whose company he travels to the mythical realm of Asgard to confront a terrifying Frost Giant.

One of the things that has always endeared me to Neil Gaiman's work is the fact that we share a bone-deep fascination with and affinity for mythology and folklore.  Gaiman's particular love of Norse mythology is on full display here, as is his unerring ability to create wonderful protagonists.  To my mind, Odd comes close to stealing Coraline's crown as the author's best main character, with his wisdom beyond his years and his boundless compassion.

Genuinely, this book was a delight to read and well-deserving of the multiple literary awards it won.  On top of that, the edition I have is magnificently illustrated by Chris Riddell, adding a level of visual poetry to match Gaiman's delightful prose.  Another great book by my favourite author.

5 out of 5

 

Smoke And Mirrors

An anthology of thirty-five short stories and poems.  Dealing in demons, trolls, vampires, werewolves and more, this book is a mixture of fantasy, horror, fable and erotica.

Short story anthologies are always of less interest to me; by their nature they have varying degrees of quality, as well as lacking the deeply involving narrative that a novel would have.  That is definitely the case here, but thankfully Gaiman's great gifts with prose and with storytelling more or less carry the day.  I can't claim to have particularly enjoyed the poems on offer here, of which there are many more than I was expecting, but not liking poetry is a personal quirk and wouldn't necessarily have a bearing on anyone else's enjoyment of the book.

Truth be told, as much as I love Gaiman as a writer, the vast majority of this book was just 'okay' for me.  It's never a chore to read, but a great many of the stories just felt too cynical for my tastes, lacking the air of whimsy that made me fall in love with characters like Coraline and Odd.  I would say that there is definitely a darker and more adult tone to these stories than in many of the author's works but because none of the stories gets to develop the way something like 'American Gods' or 'Neverwhere' did, they proved to be less enjoyable as a result.

However, there are a handful of stories here which redeem the failings of the others to a great extent.  Be it the ones which tap into the cosmic horror vibe by evoking H. P. Lovecraft (or invoking him, as one story does) or those that work as retellings and reimaginings of fables.  For me the best two stories on offer are the last two, a perfect choice which leaves you retroactively enjoying the book's weaker stories more than if it had ended on one of them.  Of these last two one, 'Murder Mysteries', was definitely my favourite; recounting the invention of Death and the first murder among the angels in Heaven, before the creation of the universe.  The other and final story, 'Snow, Glass, Apples' is a perfectly Gaimanesque retelling of the story of Snow White.

4 out of 5

 

Stardust

In order to win the heart of the most beautiful girl in the village of Wall, Tristran Thorn crosses into the world of Faerie to recover a fallen star. 

Purists may be annoyed to learn that it was watching the film adaption (which I loved, by the way) that made me choose to read this book in the first place, so it's hard to review the book without being affected by the film.  However, the two are by no means the same.  Here Gaiman uses his incredible imagination to produce wonders with his characteristic dark undertones. 

It is the depth of the world of Faerie that is this book's greatest strength, the sense that there's much more going on offscreen, as it were.  The author has written the book as an Edwardian fairy tale, but that doesn't really do justice to what is presented here, which is full of subtlety, metaphor and magic.  As ever Gaiman's prose is smooth and endearing making this book a pleasure to read. 

My only disappointment was that the romance, which had so perfectly tapped into my own romantic side whilst watching the film, isn't nearly as prominent as I would have liked.

5 out of 5

 

The Graveyard Book

When a young boy's family is murdered, the toddler escapes their killer in a graveyard and is taken in by the ghosts that live there.  Raised by the ghosts and guarded by Silas, neither living nor dead, young Bod Owens has numerous adventures as he slowly matures towards a confrontation with the man Jack, his family's killer.

This is essentially a retelling of Rudyard Kipling's 'The Jungle Book' but rather than being raised by animals in the jungle, the central orphan faces a far more macabre upbringing.  This allows Gaiman to fully indulge his talent for revealing the wonders and terror which exist just out of sight in a series of linked adventures from across Bod's supernatural childhood.  My personal favourite of these is the chapter in which he befriends the ghost of a girl killed for being a witch, who relays the unjust nature of her killing whilst slyly never denying being a witch.

'The Graveyard Book' doesn't perhaps have the same impact as Gaiman's nominally adult novels and for that I was going to mark it down slightly.  However, I soon realised that, as a reading experience, it was every bit as satisfying and enjoyable as it needed to be and to mark it down due to being aimed at a younger audience would be unfair in this case.

5 out of 5

 

The Ocean At The End Of The Lane

In this book a middle-aged man returns to a place he knew as a child and there begins to remember a series of events that revealed to him the wonders and horrors that exist beyond the realms of the 'real' world.

Gaiman's greatest strength is leading readers on a journey where he slowly reveals that our world is like moonlight shimmering on the surface of an ocean, beneath which lies an unknowable vastness, filled with things from our fondest dreams and wildest nightmares.  This book takes you on such a journey and, told through the eyes of a child but in the memories of an adult, Gaiman manages to bring the people and places featured vividly to life.

I began this book expecting that, sooner or later, Gaiman would disappoint me but the truth is that I loved it.  It's got everything that a love about the author's work and if there is a downside it is simply that, at just 178 pages, the journey came to an end far too soon.

5 out of 5

 

The Sandman: Overture

(Art by J. H. Williams III)

Both a prequel and a sequel to the main Sandman series, it is significant that the numbering on the spine of this book is a Mobius loop.  Dream of the Endless finds himself pulled away to a distant world where he encounters countless other aspects of himself.  Together they discover that the universe is ending due to a mistake Dream himself made eons ago when he refused to destroy a star that had gone insane.  His attempt to thwart the end of the universe will lead the Sandman to achieve things none of his siblings could ever hope to achieve, whilst simultaneously leaving him so weak that he will be trapped in a way that none of the others could be.

First of all I will recommend that you read this book after the main Sandman series, even though it leads directly into the beginning of the first book, 'Preludes & Nocturnes'.  I did not do this, only having read book one before hand, and as a result I always felt I was running to catch up whilst reading this book.  Luckily for me I'm familiar enough with Gaiman's other work to extrapolate quite a lot from knowing how he tends to write.  So, you can enjoy this book in isolation (I did, afterall) but I wouldn't recommend it.

In keeping with the nature of its protagonist, there is a strong dreamlike quality to this graphic novel, with leaps in location and logic that make internal sense but which seem unreal when you think about it.  This element is only enhanced by the surreal quality of Williams' artwork.  If you're looking for a straightforward narrative then this is not the book for you.

What I liked most about this book is that it shows Dream to be compassionate and proactive, often despite himself.  He tries to be insular and uncaring but nevertheless always seems to find himself moved to acts of benevolence.  His relationship to the orphan Hope here is the strongest example of this, but there are also signs of it in his interactions with the members of his immortal family, who he pretends not to care about.

This book is weird, disjointed and occasionally confusing but never less than compelling.  Just like a dream.

4 out of 5

 

The Sandman: Preludes & Nocturnes

(Art by Sam Keith, Mike Dringenberg and Malcolm Jones III)

The first volume of The Sandman series sees the King of Dreams captured and bound by mortals who hold him prisoner for a century.  Eventually breaking free of his confinement, Dream must recover his artifacts of power, a bag of sand, a helmet and a ruby, in order to reclaim his throne in the Dreamworld.

The introduction (by series editor Karen Berger) and the afterword (by Gaiman himself) both express the idea that this first Sandman book an imperfect beginning to the series in which Gaiman hadn't quite figured out the character and his world.  I think that's fair to say and I personally felt that the book steadily improved in tone and quality, as the author fleshed out the concept.  The final chapter, featuring Dream's sister Death, shows such marked improvement that it really gets you keen to read more of the Sandman's adventures.

What I found interesting and, frankly, surprising about this book is that, to a certain extent, it's set in the same universe as the mainstream DC comics.  Having only previously known the series through its reputation, it never occurred to me to see the Dream King encounter such familiar faces as John Constantine, the Martian Manhunter or the Scarecrow.  It's clear though that the dark and occasionally pure-horror tone of this book wouldn't do well in crossing over with the likes of Superman or Wonder Woman, with only the darker and stranger characters of the DC universe really fitting.  I was a little disappointed that more wasn't made of Dream's encounter with Scarecrow, but the storyline involving Doctor Destiny more than made up for it.

Certainly not a perfect graphic novel, but one whose tone, intrigue and otherworldliness are exactly the sort of thing I want to see more of.

4 out of 5

Collaborations & Anthologies:

Batman: Featuring Two-Face And The Riddler (here)

Doctor Who: 12 Doctors 12 Stories (here)

Good Omens (here)

Legends II (here)

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Fantasy (here)

Science Fiction (here)

DC Comics (here)

Doctor Who (here)

Marvel Comics (here)