About the Author:
Known for his comic books and his award-winning novels, Neil Gaiman was born in England but now lives in America. He has also variously written for radio, TV and movies.
AVERAGE REVIEW SCORE:
4.3 out of 5
(Art by Andy Kubert and Richard Isanove)
In the latter days of the reign of Queen Elizabeth I the world is wracked by strange weather and troubled by the appearance of the mutant Witchbreed. As the Queen's spymaster Sir Nicholas Fury and her physician Doctor Stephen Strange investigate, it slowly becomes clear that all of the mysterious events are interlinked and that something has gone terribly awry with time itself.
To begin with this book was simply a reframing of the familiar Marvel Universe but in the context of the early 17th Century. Which was perfectly fine. In fact it was particularly interesting to see how familiar Marvel characters are transposed onto the world of the early 1600s. However, if that's all this book had been, it would've felt slightly disappointing, mostly a gimmick, but thankfully Gaiman adds another layer to what's going on here. Time itself has been thrown out of balance by a traveller from the future of the mainstream Marvel Universe, whose arrival in the Elizabethan Age has caused events to happen centuries earlier than intended; such as the emergence of mutants, the appearance of specific characters and the imbuing of wonderous powers to the likes of Sir Richard Reed and his three cohorts. It gives the book added impetus knowing that to save the Marvel Universe of the future, these aberrant incarnations of familiar faces ('variants', to use the new MCU term) have to undertake an incredible quest and make extraordinary sacrifices.
All that said, the simple transposing of these characters into the world of 1602 does indeed have plenty of mileage of its own, exploring how the likes of the Catholic church and the Inquisition react to the emergence of mutants or how James I's famous paranoia about witchcraft leads him to brutal vengeance against Doctor Strange. At first I will admit to being a bit uncomfortable with the concept of Rojhaz, a tall, muscular, blond-haired white man representing the Native American community, but his role in the story does come together very satisfactorily in the end.
Also, Gaiman being Gaiman, he can't resist the temptation to indulge his fascination for storytelling and stories themselves, where Reed contemplates that stories are as much a fundamental principle of the universe as the particles which it is comprised of and that their quest may have a chance because they exist in 'a universe which favours stories'.
4 out of 5
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
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
Batman: Whatever Happened To The Caped Crusader?
(Art by Andy Kubert, Scott Williams, Simon Bisley, Mark Buckingham, Nansi Hoolahan, Mike Hoffman, Kevin Nowlan, Bernie Mireault and Matt Wagner)
Five stories featuring the Dark Knight including introspective looks at Poison Ivy and the Riddler, as well as the titular story which begins with Batman's funeral.
Up to this point the only mainstream superhero story I'd read by Gaiman was Marvel's 'Eternals' and there I was disappointed by how little of the author's unique style came through in it. That's not something that can be said here, however, and far from being straightforward Batman tales, these stories are very Gaimanesque.
One of the reason I love Gaiman as a writer is that he weaves the nature of storytelling into the stories he tells in a very meta way. This book then is not only the writer's love-letter to a character he adores but also a love-letter to how Batman stories have been told over the decades. The title story very deliberately mixes styles, in both story tone and artwork, from across Batman's comics history whilst 'A Black and White World' has Batman and the Joker critiqueing their own roles in the narrative.
So, you need to be onboard with the idea that this isn't Neil Gaiman writing a Batman story but instead this is Neil Gaiman writing about Batman stories.
4 out of 5
An 'American Gods' novella set some time after 'The Monarch of the Glen' and originally published in 'Trigger Warning'. Stopping in a village in the north of England, Shadow Moon is told the story of Black Shuck, a spectral dog that follows in the footsteps of those who are about to die. Staying with a local couple, Shadow begins to get a sense of how much more the black dog means.
This is a Neil Gaiman story, so you'd be justified in expecting multiple layers to the storytelling but I was genuinely surprised and pleased by how thoroughly the layers are woven together in this narrative. Legends of ghostly hounds are common across England (they even inspired Arthur Conan Doyle, of course) and Gaiman could easily have just made this story about Shadow encountering such a mythical beast, but the black dog of the title has another meaning too; used variously as a metaphor for depression. Both of these aspects of the black dog prove integral to the story being told here.
There's not too much more I can say without spoiling elements of the story but suffice to say this is another brilliant entry into Shadow Moon's story, showcasing the author's innate grasp of the fact that wonder and horror are two sides of the same coin.
Honestly, the only reason this book doesn't rate full marks is that it's just too damn short!
4 out of 5
(Art by Dave McKean)
A strange young woman awakes with the memories of a dead woman, the superhero Black Orchid. She then sets out on a quest to discover who she is and where she comes from whilst simultaneously trying to protect her sister/daughter Suzy from Lex Luthor's henchmen.
So, yeah, the first thing you should know about this book before going in is that it's part of the DC Comics universe, so if you're not okay with the likes of Batman and Swamp Thing showing up, then this isn't the book for you. I didn't know any of that but luckily it made no difference to me because a) I love the DC Universe and b) I'd already read the first 'Sandman' book and gotten over that particular surprise there. In fact, there's a great deal about this book that put me in mind of Gaiman's later work on 'Sandman' and I wasn't surprised to learn that some of the original ideas intended for this book were later repurposed for that other series. Both titles have a certain dreamlike quality as well as an aversion to standard superhero narrative style.
Whilst I did enjoy this book, it's clearly early Gaiman and hasn't quite got the polished mythic sensibilities that are the hallmarks of his later work. I would've only scored it at three out of five if it weren't for McKean's gorgeous artwork.
4 out of 5
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
(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
(Art by John Bolton)
The graphic novel adaption of one of Gaiman's short stories. A retelling of a classic Commedia dell'arte, here we meet the impish trickster Harlequin who, on Valentine's Day, pins his heart to the door of a woman named Missy. He then follows his erstwhile love around, trying to find the secret to wooing her.
Now, before reading this book I tried to find out what kind of story it was but all anything had to say was in reference to the Commedia dell'arte, which I had literally never heard of before. Now, thanks to Gaiman's afternotes in my copy of this book, I understand that it was a type of stage performance with stock characters and situations whose roots may go back to the ancient Greeks or further. You don't need to know any of that to read this book, but it's important to know that this book is fed by Gaiman's fascination with the magic of ancient storytelling.
For the book itself, there's not a whole lot to it, with us just following Harlequin and Missy around as the former plays out his role as trickster and lover, only for the tables to be turned somewhat by the end. However, despite there not being much to the book I still rather enjoyed it. It has all of Gaiman's whimsy, humour and appreciation of the fundamental magics that permeate the world. And because it's based on an ancient type of story there are clear resonances in Harlequin's character with other magical tricksters from other traditions like Loki and Anansi. I'm sure it's no coincidence that those characters also feature prominently in other Gaiman books.
This is, admittedly, a very short graphic novel and is definitely not worth forking out the full cover price (US$10.95), but that does not mean it's not worth reading. It definitely is.
4 out of 5
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
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
Snow, Glass, Apples
(Art by Colleen Doran)
The graphic novel adaption of one of Gaiman's short stories. A dark retelling of Snow White, this book features a young queen discovering that her pale and beautiful step-daughter is a cruel blood-sucking monster.
I had already read the prose version of this story, in the anthology 'Smoke and Mirrors', and instantly fell in love with the idea of the fairytale of Snow White recast as a vampire story. The elements fit so perfectly that I was amazed no-one had made the connection before Gaiman, be it the girl's complexion or her resurrection after apparently having her heart cut out. Gaiman even makes a now-obvious extrapollation onto the wandering prince who (in the most familiar version of the story) kissed an apparently dead girl he found in the forest bringing her back to life, with him here being a necrophiliac who naturally can't resist loving a girl who will always be as cold as death.
The wonderfully dark reimagining of this familiar fairytale would've been enough to make me love this book, but the artwork takes it to a whole other level. Doran's darkly sensuous images are absolutely gorgeous. Perhaps most striking is how she illustrates the deadly young princess, making her simultaneously strikingly beautiful and coldly terrifying.
This is a very short graphic novel, but one that I really enjoyed on both the levels of its writing and its illustration.
5 out of 5
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 Monarch Of The Glen
A novella set two years after the end of 'American Gods'. Shadow Moon has been travelling the world and finds himself on the north coast of Scotland, where he is recruited as security for a mysterious gathering held in a remote country house.
I originally read this story when it was first published in the 'Legends II' anthology (reviewed here). I hadn't read 'American Gods' at that point (in fact it was the first thing I read by the man who would go on to be my favourite author), so a great deal of what happens here was lost on me. However, I still very much enjoyed it. Coming back to the story now, nearly two decades later, it has only got better in my eyes.
Gaiman perfectly recaptures the feeling of dark and ancient powers working behind the scenes in our world that made 'American Gods' such a great story and the author uses his personal experience of the rugged and often grim coastline of Scotland's far north to give the story a brilliantly moody atmosphere.
It's a pretty short story with a fairly high price tag on the cover, but if you're a fan of the adventures of Shadow Moon then you definitely wouldn't go far wrong reading this (or maybe, if you've never read any Gaiman, this could be the story that intrigues you into seeking out the rest of the author's work...)
On a boastful but irrelevant note: my copy of this book is signed by both Gaiman and the illustrator Daniel Egneus.
4 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
The Sandman: The Doll's House
(Art by Mike Dringenberg, Malcolm Jones III, Chris Bachalo, Michael Zulli and Steve Parkhouse)
Book two of The Sandman series. Dream of the Endless is faced with two problems which, inevitably, overlap. The first is that during his imprisonment on Earth several dreams escaped from the world of the Dreaming into the real world and remain at large. The second is that a young woman called Rose Walker has become a vortex, a being capable of destroying the dream world itself and, by extension, the waking world with it.
I really enjoyed the structure of this book, with a series of episodic interludes for Morpheus/Dream threaded together by the Rose's story as she tries to locate her missing brother. One of the interludes that I enjoyed most sees Dream and Death overhearring a boastful man in medieval England deciding for himself that he will never die. Amused, Dream makes a friend of this man and sees that Death makes his wish come true. Their centennial rendezvouses see them encounter the likes of Chaucer and Shakespeare, as well as finding themselves mistaken for the mythical Wandering Jew and the Devil himself. What I liked most about this tangential storyline was seeing the immortal man, Robert Gadling, forcing Dream to admit that they are, despite Dream's claims to the contrary, friends.
This book also delves pretty deep into horror territory as Rose finds herself staying at a motel which happens to be hosting a disguised convention for serial killers. Among these killers is one of the errant dreams, known as the Corinthian, who behind his sunglasses has fanged mouths where his eyes should be. Things get pretty dark as the various serial killers casually discuss their methodology and this is definitely not a book for the squeamish.
Overall, Gaiman once again delivers an interesting and compelling book with an otherworldly dream-like quality totally in keeping with its subject matter.
4 out of 5
The Sleeper And The Spindle
A sleeping plague falls across a magical kingdom and rumour tells that only a kiss can wake a sleeping princess and break the spell. Hearing this, the Queen of a neighbouring kingdom, who had a similar experience of being magically put to sleep, and her dwarf companions set off to break the spell.
This is, of course, a retelling of Sleeping Beauty but with a number of very Gaimanesque twists, the first of which is to make Snow White the hero. In fact my favourite thing about this entire book is the character of the Queen (never referred to as Snow White), who is pragmatic, determined and has no time for any of the inevitable wicked witch's nonsense. This is a fairy tale where the damsels, whether in distress or not, certainly don't need some prince to save them and that's a great feminist theme to add to the genre.
Despite liking the themes and the main character in particular, I have to admit to being a little disappointed with this book. I've adored Gaiman's other retellings and reinventing of older tales (see my reviews for both 'Norse Mythology' and 'Snow, Glass, Apples' above) but this one felt like it fell short of his usual standard. I think a large part of this is just how short it is, added to which is a bare-boned brevity to the narrative which leaves the whole feeling a bit rushed.
Perhaps if this were a more developed tale I would've enjoyed it more, but for me it was too short and too succinct to be among Gaiman's best.
3 out of 5
An anthology of short stories and poems, most previously published separately elsewhere, consisting of a mixture of fantasy, horror and science fiction.
Gaiman has an obvious love for stories and, more importantly, how stories are told and this anthology contains a brilliant mixture of his experiments into new or simply different ways of telling stories. Some are first-person, some are allegorical and some are fairy tales. This really is a great cross-section of the ways that Gaiman tells stories and any fan of the author should love it just for that.
The stories themselves are, of course, of varying quality but overall I found them much more enjoyable collectively than those in 'Smoke and Mirrors', the last Gaiman anthology I read. I didn't particularly enjoy the poems but, with a few notable exceptions, I've never particularly enjoyed poetry in general (my favourite is Edgar Allan Poe's 'The Raven', since you didn't ask), so they were never going to do much for me.
There are four stories which stood out for me as classic Gaiman (two of which I've read as separately-published books and are reviewed above); 'The Truth is a Cave in the Black Mountains', 'Nothing O'clock', 'The Sleeper and the Spindle' and 'Black Dog'. 'The Sleeper and the Spindle' was the least enjoyable of these, but it does have a great premise in which Snow White decides to take her destiny into her own hands and sets off with three dwarfs to save Sleeping Beauty. It's a nice feminist twist to the classic fairy tales. 'Nothing O'clock' is a Doctor Who story featuring Matt Smith's Eleventh Doctor and his companion Amy Pond. In it the Doctor confronts an ancient enemy of the Time Lords which likes to wear people as masks and it has the same brilliantly dark tone as Gaiman's first story written for the TV series itself 'The Doctor's Wife'.
The absolute highlights of this book are 'The Truth is a Cave...' and 'Black Dog', the latter of which is a short sequel to 'American Gods'. They both represent Gaiman at his best, tapping into the dark magics that lurk just below the surface of the world. I don't want to spoil them so I'll say no more except to say that this book is worth the cover price for them alone.
4 out of 5