Friday, January 19, 2007

Smoke and Mirrors

by Neil Gaiman

Most fantasy authors, even those fond of writing huge multi volume doorstop epics, really shine when it comes to short fiction and Neil Gaiman is no exception. The absurdities of the genre make it hard to sustain belief and take the story seriously, and the longer and more complicated the story becomes the harder it is to pull it off. Even a brilliant writer like Gaiman drops the ball once or twice when working on a years long serial like Sandman, but in a short story collection like this one he is free to introduce an interesting fancy or a witty perspective and play with it for a few pages before moving on.

As with his other writing the fantasy aspect is fairly is not really all that fantastic; there are no clich├Ęd Tolkien-esque conventions here, every story is set in what is more or less the 'real' world and the magic works in a manner more like that of a fairy tale or an urban legend rather than the more typical Dungeons and Dragons type mechanics. This realistic grounding is one of the things that makes Gaiman's work so resonant. He always starts with a story or a premise that is completely drawn from real life, and the supernatural elements merely serve to emphasise or reframe that premise.

The stories in this collection are drawn from over a decade of his career so there is a fair amount of variation in style, tone and subject matter. Just as a few examples: a science fiction version of Beowulf with a werewolf as the hero, a pair of unique and perverse takes on traditional stories (namely Snow White and Santa Claus) and Gaiman's version of the last book of the bible. Some of the stories are obviously earlier work and aren't up to his usual standards, but even taking them into account the collection as a whole is such high quality that it would be impossible to pick a favourite tale.

His latest collection, 'Fragile Things', is awaiting consumption and as much as I'm keen to devour it, I'm forcing myself to finish the history books I've had lying around for months before I do so.

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