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The Orphan’s Tales: In the Night Garden (and) In the Cities of Coin and Spice, by Catherynne M Valente

Title: The Orphan’s Tales: In the Night Garden and The Orphan’s Tales: In the Cities of Coin and Spice
Author: Catherynne M ValenteOrphansTales1
Year of Publication: 2006 / 2007
Length: 483 / 516
Genre: fantasy/folktale
New or Re-Read?: Re-Read
Rating: 5 stars

It’s probably becoming apparent that I’ve turned into a ridiculous Catherynne Valente fangirl. I feel no shame about this whatsoever.

These were actually the first Valentes I read, back a few years ago, and they were a lovely place to start. I’m reviewing the two books together because it really is all one story — but it’s also a thousand stories. Valente has given us a new Scheherazade, a girl with stories etched indelibly on her eyelids. Taken for a demon by the Sultan and his kin, the girl is abandoned in the garden and grows up half-wild and definitely a little eldritch. She reads the stories off of reflections, one eye at a time, and for years has nothing but them and the garden itself for company — until the day a little princeling encounters her and is brave enough to speak to her. Their unlikely friendship grows and coils around the stories she tells him.OrphansTales2

And I sort of don’t even know where to begin. I could never recap everything that happens in the girl’s tales. It’s the story of how the stars fell from the heavens, and some got murdered, and one gets revenge. It’s the story of a girl who was a goose. It’s the story of a fox-woman who captains a ship of monsters. It’s the story of a three-breasted saint. It’s the story of how cities can die and mutate into something else. It’s the story of a wizard’s evil deeds. It’s the story of a phoenix and his feathers.

I’ve described Valente before as steeped in mythos, and it shows here more clearly than in anything else of hers I’ve read. None of these stories are retellings of things you know; do not look here for Snow White or Aladdin or Rama. But the flavours are there. Indian and Arabian, Japanese and Russian, Finnish and German, African and Greek — layers on layers of cultural seasoning, mingling freely with each other. There is a familiarity even as everything is new and wonderful; these stories would fit in perfectly well among their elder siblings that have been told and retold for centuries. And like the folktales of old, they don’t pull their punches. These are stories with blood and bone at their core, and I adore them for it.

The language is poetic, and I’ve seen some reviews posit that as a negative. I don’t count it so at all. Valente’s words get into my head, and to me, that’s always the sign of a great writer — if my thought patterns start taking on characteristics of what I’ve read. You have to approach this book as the prince does — let the stories wash over you, don’t try too hard to connect the threads. Don’t worry; they’ll get there on their own. I love that at one point the prince reflects on how the earliest tales he heard already seem to be fading from his memory, that they will need revisiting, someday, if he’s to remember them. It does happen. There are so many intertwining tales that it can seem like ages since you read the first one, even if it’s only been a day — but I’m okay with that. It doesn’t trouble me in the least. The plotline isn’t the point. This is kaleidoscopic storytelling, where the patterns and the movement matter much more than any individual shape.

The frame narrative weaves through the girl’s stories, breaking back in every so often. The little prince returns again and again, wanting to hear more of the girl’s stories, but is often thwarted by his sister Dinarzad. In the first book, she appears nothing but a spiteful obstacle, but in the second, we learn more about the trials she faces, the trouble her brother’s actions cause for her, and she becomes much more sympathetic. She fears and hates the girl in the garden, but she becomes entrapped by the stories, too, enchanted by the possibilities plaited into them, a stark contrast to the lack of control she has over her own life. Dinarzad comes to provide a nice counterpoint — and a reminder of what power stories can have.

There’s also something wonderfully subversive in Valente’s writing. The strongest and most sympathetic characters are women and beasts, not men and boys. Heroes strike out on quests and find the situation to be far more complicated than “man-slays-beast”. She doesn’t beat you over the head with it, but the stories are definitely what I would qualify as feminist. I love that. I’ve always thought that if you write a story to make a point, it’s going to fall flat. That doesn’t make good fiction. But if you just tell the story and it happens to have that message nestled within it, then it succeeds.

I love these books and can’t recommend them highly enough. I don’t know if I’d consider them the best starting place for Valente, even though they were the first books of hers I read — the Fairyland novels might be an introduction with lower time and brainpower investment. But these, I think, really show her at her best.

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Fables #2: Animal Farm, by Bill Willingham

Title: Fables #2: Animal FarmFables2
Author: Bill Willingham
Illustrators: Mark Buckingham, Steve Leialoha
Year of Publication: 2002-2003
Length: 128 pages
Genre: graphic novel: magical realism, fairy-tale/folklore
New or Re-Read?: Re-Read
Rating: 3.5 stars

I know most people prefer this volume to the first, but I diverge from popular opinion here. The concept here is quite good, but I find the execution rushed and a little lacking.

As punishment for faking her own death — and ostensibly so the sisters can spend some quality time reconnecting — Rose Red has to go with Snow White for her annual visit up to the Farm, a protected area in upstate New York where all those Fables live who cannot pass for human. This includes the menagerie of talking animals as well as sentient bits of clothing and crockery, Lilliputians, mythical creatures, and other assorted beings. Some few “passing” humans live there, as well — the Old Woman has chosen that location rather than give up living in her Shoe, for example — but by and large, the population is bestial. And their forced segregation is causing problems. Snow White arrives unexpectedly in the middle of a highly suspect meeting, where the animals are purportedly discussing the prospect of returning to their Homelands — and she discovers that Weyland Smith, who had been in charge of the Farm, has mysteriously decided to “retire” without telling anyone.

Things take a swift and sudden turn for the worse when Colin, one of the Three Little Pigs, turns up murdered. Unlike in the first volume, Willingham doesn’t play coy with the mystery here — the reader learns quickly that Goldilocks and the Three Bears are behind it. Goldi has turned into quite the reactionary, guiding the revolt of the Farm community not out of any real idealism but simply because she seems to have gotten a taste for violence. (There’s also a pretty disturbing revelation regarding the nature of her relationship with Baby Bear). She musters the troops with a bloodthirsty enthusiasm that would do any third-world dissident proud, and Snow finds herself on the run, pursued by half the predators in legend.

My favourite character in this volume is definitely Reynard the fox, suave trickster but loyal friend to Snow, who plays a vital role in tamping down the insurgency. I also enjoy that this volume introduces a concept that becomes quite important later on — that the more popular a Fable’s story is, the more resilient the character is to destruction. Some, as you can imagine, are nigh-indestructible — while others, whose stories have faded from mundie culture, have more to worry about.

Not much happens back in the city while all of this is going on, but Willingham drops a lot of tantalising hints, both about other characters and about the way the Fables community functions — again, all things that will be important later. I appreciate this for the sense of wholeness that it gives. I love world-building, and I love when all the details and side stories are well-thought-out, even if we don’t get to see them in their entirety yet.

The art is nice in this volume — full of details, especially in the crowd scenes. The violence and gore are appropriately disturbing. These are not Bowdlerized fairy tales — but a lot closer to the spirit of the original tales, to be sure. Everything has a price, and sometimes that price is blood. Fables doesn’t pull its punches in that regard.

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Deathless, by Catherynne M Valente

Title: Deathless
Author: Catherynne M Valente
Year of Publication: 2011
Length: 352 pages
Genre: fantasy/folklore/magical realism
New or Re-Read?: New
Rating: 4.75 stars

I am so, so glad I finally read this book. A dear friend keeps sending me Valente’s books, and I’ve completely devoured all of them so far. Deathless is a blending of several myths out of Russian/Slavic mythology, regarding Koschei the Immortal and Marya Morevna. I freely confess that, while I have passing familiarity with the source material, I don’t know enough to know how much of this was Valente’s invention and how much of it comes direct from the tradition, but either way, Valente weaves those tales together with the history of Russia in the first half of the twentieth century, from the Revolution through the rise of the Cold War. The ancient themes play out against the increasingly grey background of Russia’s national fate, sprinkled now with details like rifle-demons and house-imps who learn the communist virtues of sharing their abodes collectively. Koschei, Tsar of Life, engages in his eternal battle with his brother Viy, the Tsar of Death — but the world, unarguably, is changing, and the war that was never going well is even less optimistic in these times. Human events allow Viy to claim more and more quickly than he ever has before — or does Viy’s success reflect itself in the mortal world and spur those catastrophes? The lines between Koschei’s country, Viy’s, and ours are blurry to begin with, and the smudges defining their boundaries get all the more smeared as the years progress. You know from very early on in the book that, eventually, you’re going to encounter the Siege of Leningrad and all that that entails — it looms over the story, particularly as the fairy-tale-like vagueness about time blends with the absolutism of mortal time, leaving the reader wondering when, when is this awful inevitability going to come to pass?

The central story of Deathless is that of Marya Morevna, a heroine too aware of her role in the story. She watches as three of Koschei’s lieutenants turn from birds into men in order to woo her elder sisters, and so knows early on how her life will go — except that, then, it doesn’t. Nothing in this book goes quite as planned. The world has many secrets and tripwires. It doesn’t happen as she expected, but Marya finds herself seduced by Koschei, spirited away to his country, which is both of our world and beyond it, in the way of fairy tales. Though he cherishes and spoils her, and though she makes friends in this land and takes to its customs, she must still pass trials before she can become his bride in truth. The story is not as simple for her as for other heroines, though, particularly as she learns how many of those heroines there have been in Koschei’s past, and what ends they came to.

There is an Ivan. There is always, we are told, an Ivan, a simple but lucky golden young man who steals away Koschei’s bride. Marya knows this, sees what happens to the faithless girls, the Yelenas who have abandoned Koschei in the past — locked in a factory, wiped of mind and will, slaving away at looms to create cloth-soldiers for his army. Marya determines that she will never give in as they did — but to do that, she has the weight of a lot of tradition to fight against. The threat of Ivan, like the doom of the Yelenas, looms over the story like a storm waiting to break — and when it does, things change, but never in the predictable ways, for all their inevitability.

As with the Orphan’s Tales duology, Deathless lets you know that Valente is a writer absolutely steeped in mythology of all kinds. She must have been marinating herself in it for years, and the investment has paid off remarkably. Over the past two years, she’s become one of my favourite authors for that very reason. In many ways, this book reflects versions of the katabasis story type that are much older than Hades and Persephone. I don’t know as much about the traditional myths of Koschei and Yelena, or Koschei and Marya, but what this made me think of was Inanna, the Sumerian goddess, descending to the depths, shedding layers as she goes – first clothes, then skin, then self. Marya’s initial trip in Deathless echoes this more subtly, but the shedding – and subsequent rediscovering – of self continues throughout the novel. There are rituals, going in and coming out, repetitions and reiterations as there must be in myth, but it still remains the story of a woman giving all for — what? With Inanna, we never get to know. Other heroes who make the journey have a very specific purpose, but for a heroine, the sources don’t tell us — and so with Marya. Does she go — in either direction, in or out — because she must? For love? For family? For nostalgia or desperation or curiosity? Even Marya does not always know, which is, I think, as it should be — we don’t always know why we make the decisions we do, all the more difficult when a story is riding you.

From another angle, Deathless is as fine a representation of a Dominant/submissive relationship as I’ve yet seen in literature. Everything that The Claiming of Sleeping Beauty isn’t, and even beyond what we achieve in Kushiel’s Legacy, Deathless explores in glorious abundance. None of the other reviews on Goodreads or elsewhere seemed to discuss this, which is perhaps unsurprising. I don’t know that it’s put in terms that are blatant to the unfamiliar, but to me, as someone… let’s go with ‘initiated’, it stands out. I wanted to find a quote to exemplify this, but it’s difficult, because so much of it is written in subtleties. When Koschei entices Marya away from her home in unglamorous then-Petrograd, he requires her silence and obedience as he both cossets and chastises her. He gives her everything, showers her with gifts, and she starts to become half-demon herself, but she must also learn not to drown in it, to assert herself in turn, to grow from the lessons he and his country teach her.

I don’t want to give too much away, because this is definitely a case where the telling of the tale should go unspoiled, but the tables do turn — more than once, really, some of them on mythological axes, some on more modern. It is, as all good love stories ought to be and as more D/s stories need to be, about the figures involved finding their matches in each other. It is about power, but more about negotiating that power, taking it and trading it and yielding it, not just becoming locked into a prescribed fixed pattern — and in that way, the relationship is a microcosm of the storytelling itself, exploring the places where the patterns are useful and where they can and should be coaxed, cajoled, or kicked into a new form. In the end, the question that Baba Yaga poses is the important one: Who is to rule?

That question, central to Koschei and Marya’s relationship, echoes throughout the book — Who is to rule Russia, the tsars or the Party or the Germans? Who is to rule Earth, the Tsar of Life or the Tsar of Death? Who is to rule Marya, herself or Koschei or Ivan or someone else, or the inexorable story she treads in? Her human self or her demon self? The answers are far from obvious — particularly in such a changing world, where things no longer are as they always have been. The expected does not always manifest. Marya’s choices, Koschei’s, Russia’s, they all intertwine, weaving together into an enchanting if occasionally horrifying narrative. Deathless does not end as easily as fairy tales ought to, and there are still things there at the end for the reader to untangle for herself.

I highly recommend this book to any fans of folklore and fairy tales, particularly if you’re someone who enjoys modern, magical-realism twists on them, or else the grittier, less forgiving, less redemptive versions of the stories. This is, like The Orphan’s Tales, a book I almost want to start all over again immediately after finishing it. Valente’s writing voice is exquisite — dark and lyrical, utterly poetic yet entirely unflinching from the harsh and the ugly, with a cadence familiar yet enchantingly new. Marya’s twisted, torquing path is one I’m eager to tread again.

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Beauty and the Werewolf, by Mercedes Lackey

Title: Beauty and the Werewolf (Tales of the Five Hundred Kingdoms #6)
Author: Mercedes Lackey
Year of Publication: 2011
Length: 408 pages
Genre: fantasy romance
New or Re-Read?: New
Rating: 3 stars
Spoiler Warning: Armed and active, because there’s no way to discuss what I liked and disliked about this book without “giving away” the ending.

This book suffers from its predictability. And that’s a shame, because there was a lot of potential here, and I did enjoy this book — but very much in a fluffy, easy-to-digest sort of way. This book is the latest in Lackey’s Five Hundred Kingdoms series, which I generally enjoy but which are far from the best fairy tale adaptations out there. She’s starting turning them into mash-ups more than just retellings, and this one smushes Beauty and the Beast and Little Red Riding Hood (as though the cover didn’t give those things away). So we meet Bella (and as a sidebar: is anyone else really sick of that name for heroines? Which is a shame, because it’s a lovely name, really, but Twilight has just caused it to be so overplayed. Especially as short for Isabella. Couldn’t we get more creative? Arabella? Annabella? Orabella? Something?), the eldest daughter of a merchant, who has for years run her household, keeping her stepmother and stepsisters in line. She also periodically makes trips out into the woods to chat with “Granny”, a wisewoman who lives out there — and while coming back from one of these jaunts, she gets nipped by a werewolf. When the King’s forces find out what happened to her, they essentially kidnap her and take her to the home of Duke Sebastian — the werewolf — for a quarantine to see if she’s infected. Sebastian’s werewolf curse is a great secret, kept from the world at large, and though not only a Duke but a magician in his own right, he is looked after by his illegitimate half-brother, Eric, a woodsman and gamekeeper who patrols the forests to try and keep everyone safe from him. Ostensibly. We first meet Eric when he’s sexually assaulting women at a party in town, and then when he encounters Bella in the woods and mistakes her for a peasant girl rather than the daughter of someone of consequence, he tries to coerce her into having sex with him — and as good as says that he takes that “in trade” when he catches female poachers, in exchange for letting them off. So he’s pretty clearly a sleaze and set up from the very beginning to be the villain.

I was so hoping he wouldn’t be. If Lackey hadn’t given him those casual rapist qualities, he would’ve been a really interesting character — because he knows his trade well, and . So I kept vaguely hoping that he would turn out to be other than he seemed and that someone else would be the real villain, because it would’ve allowed him to be a much stronger character. The trouble is that… we never meet anyone else. If Eric was a red herring, there was never any indication of who he might be a red herring for, so it’s pretty clear that there are not, in fact, any other villains in the story. And the other problem is that — again, casual rapist qualities aside — he’s a much more interesting character than our theoretical male hero, Sebastian, who is pretty much just a complete milksop. As is often the case in the Five Hundred Kingdoms stories — and this has been a criticism I’ve had of the whole series — the love story seems completely slapped on. There’s really no reason for Bella to fall for him except proximity, and we don’t get any emotional depth out of either of them. They just sort of… decide to get married because of … reasons. It’s odd. These books would, on the whole, be better without the romance angle at all.

All of that said — there are things to like about this book. I didn’t find Bella as annoying as it seems some Goodreads reviewers did. I thought she actually avoided a lot of pitfalls, and if there were points that were a little too “look how unconventional a female she is!”, well, that’s often true of many of the historical romances I read as well. The very best parts of the book, in my estimation, were the ones where Bella was interacting with the invisible servants, learning to communicate with them, and learning from them. That was very clever on Lackey’s part. They’re sort of wraiths (in a ghostly way, not a Dementor way), largely stripped of memory and personality, but a few of them hold a sense of themselves as individuals, and the way they interact with Bella is a lot of fun to watch develop. I always enjoy when she thinks about magic and explains its workings in new ways. Some of Sebastian’s practices are definitely reminiscent of her Elemental Masters series as well, and it gives a little more shape to magic in the Five Hundred Kingdoms. We also see Godmother Elena back again for a cameo, which is a nice sense of continuity.

Overall, this is perfectly serviceable fluff. Not exquisite, and I’m pretty sure that The Fire Rose is a far superior version of this story from Lackey, but it was a quick and enjoyable enough read.

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The Claiming of Sleeping Beauty, by Anne Rice

Title: The Claiming of Sleeping Beauty
Author: Anne Rice (as A. N. Roquelaure)
Year of Publication: 1983
Length: 253 pages
Genre: fantasy erotica (and I use the latter term loosely)
New or Re-Read? New
Rating: 1.5 stars, and that only because I was intrigued/bewildered enough to actually finish the damn thing
Warnings: As this book is definitely For Mature Audiences Only, this review will also carry an NC-17 rating, as well as trigger warnings for rape and sexual abuse (because that’s sort of, well, the entire basis of the story). You also may learn slightly more about my sex life than you had intended to know.

Edit 27 Dec 2012: Because this post is still getting a fair bit of traffic, I thought I’d stop by and encourage anyone who reads this review to check out Deathless, by Catherynne ValenteDeathless is as gorgeous an exploration of a D/s relationship as I’ve ever seen in fiction, outstripping even Kushiel’s Legacy. The relationship is nuanced and clever, a constant negotiation of power and seduction, not a forceful and unfeeling subjugation or a humiliation. Do yourself a favour — especially if you are new to BDSM relationships or are considering the concept — and read that instead of The Claiming of Sleeping Beauty. Plus, it’s extraordinarily well-written. Valente has talent pouring out of her ears and is well-steeped in mythology and poetry.

—-

Well, this is just porn.

And no, it’s not that I don’t recognise erotica as a valid genre. I do. This isn’t it. This is just plain porn in verbal rather than visual form.

So, here’s the “story”, such as it exists — The Claiming of Sleeping Beauty revisits the classic fairy tale’s less savoury origins. In an early Italian version of the story, Sleeping Beauty’s prince doesn’t awake her with a kiss, he rapes her while she’s sleeping, and in at least one version, even that doesn’t wake her up; she later gives birth to twins and one of them suckles the enchanted spindle out of her finger. In Rice’s version, Beauty awakes mid-violation; rather than marrying her, the Prince then claims her as a love slave and hauls her back to her kingdom. Her parents allow this because, we learn, they each spent time as slaves in his kingdom in their own youth (in his great-grandfather’s time, thanks to the hundred-year sleeping spell). Claiming to love her overwhelmingly, the Prince begins stripping her of dignity on their journey, forcing her to walk naked in the view of everyone they pass, letting a tavern girl spank her for the amusement of the town, making her enter his castle on her hands and knees — all the while telling her that she needs to surrender her pride, that she’s been a spoilt little Princess, but he loves her anyway and all this will improve her.

… Yeah.

And this is all in the first, like, twenty pages of the book. He gets Beauty back to his castle, where the reader discovers that the entire freaking kingdom is basically one giant BDSM dungeon. Princes and Princesses are sent — as young as eleven years old, it seems, which puts a whole new level of WTFery on this book — to serve time as sex slaves in this other kingdom, where the whole court follows the example of the monarchs in sexual games and punishments. No sooner does Beauty arrive than she gets tied up in public view and subjected to all sorts of fondlings and gropings from the lords and ladies. And the entire rest of the book is pretty much that — Beauty’s training as a slave, the breaking of her willpower, and her interactions with members of the court and with other slaves.

Perhaps I was too spoiled by Kushiel’s Leagcy, where the eroticism exists as part of a well-defined world with history and religion and reasons for being the freaking way it is. The world of this story has all the depth of a porn set. There’s never any background given as to why the Prince’s kingdom is set up like this, why the other kingdoms allow it and send tributes and are apparently all okay with the set-up and have been for hundreds of years. The entire premise seems to me to be entirely bizarre. We’re told that the Princes and Princesses will return to their own kingdoms “much improved” by their time in slavery, but… how? We get no indication. They spend their formative years learning to fetch and carry like dogs and being violated in every way conceivable, learning to surrender their wills completely, being broken of any independent thought, and that… will make them good rulers? Wait, what? I don’t get it.

I got this book because a friend thought I might be interested in it — at least, she thought it would be more up my alley than it had been up hers, and she isn’t wrong there. Aspects of this book do appeal to me. I have an interest in kink, I’ve enjoyed other books that explore it, so, I gave this a shot. The trouble that impeded my enjoyment is that, well, this book isn’t just about BDSM. There’s a whole lot of humiliation in it as well, and that is something that absolutely triggers revulsion in me. There is a difference — for those who don’t know — between masochism and submission, between the role of bottom and the role of slave. Enjoying pain, enjoying bondage, enjoying a struggle in lovemaking — that is not the same as enjoying being made to feel inferior, enjoying being ordered around, enjoying the frustration of inadequacy. I draw a very, very deliberate line — and this way crosses it.

Now. It may not for everyone. Kinks are definite cases of Your Mileage May Vary, and I certainly don’t judge people if this is what gets them off. It’s a fantasy, and it’s no one’s place to cast aspersions on that. So, if you like ritual humiliation, pony play, debasements of all kinds — this book will deliver for you. But I’ll still judge you for liking it, not because of those kinks, but because the book is also pretty terribly written. Seriously, there’s much better smutty fanfiction out there (I should know; I’ve both read and written plenty of it). The dialogue is absurd, the vocabulary tediously unvaried (I’m pretty sure “spank” in some conjugated form occurs at least once a page), the characters flat and undeveloped. Why is the Queen such a stone-cold bitch? Lady Juliana actually seems like she might be an intrinsically decent person, so why does she so enthusiastically go along with all this? What makes Lord Gregory such a rampaging douche? What sympathy does Leon feel for his charges? I don’t know. There are a lot of characters in here that, in another novel, might be interesting. But not here. They exist only as their functions. We get no insight into any character’s mind except Beauty’s, and even that is uneven and hard to follow. She seems to volley between acceptance of her fate and horror at it with no explanation as to how she transitions from one feeling to the other. There’s no motivation for anything, and her reactions and internal thoughts are completely inconsistent. So, yeah — I accept that Your Kink Is Not My Kink, but whatever the kink is, it’s no excuse for bad writing.

There are two more books in the series, but I doubt I’ll be getting them. I don’t know if I could put myself through another five hundred pages of the humiliation aspect, and it also seems, from the summaries, that a lot of Books 2 and 3 is slash, which is just not my cup of tea. I’m all about people having gay sex, but guy-on-guy action does nothing to titillate me personally, and since these books have no purpose other than titillation, that would seem a silly way to spend my time.

So. If you’re interested in fantasy with an erotic edge, I totally get that and encourage you in it. But pass on The Claiming of Sleeping Beauty, and pick up Kushiel’s Legacy instead.

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Sandman, Volume 8: Worlds’ End, by Neil Gaiman

Title: Sandman, Volume 8: Worlds’ End
Author: Neil Gaiman
Year of Publication: 1994
Length: 168 pages
Genre: graphic novel – magical realism
New or Re-Read?: Re-Read
Rating: 4.5 stars

This is a wonderfully imaginative volume of Sandman — and considering that the entire series is a celebration of imagination, that’s really saying something.

A series of nested stories, reminiscent of Boccaccio’s Decameron and Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, Worlds’ End introduces us to a mismatched set of characters who meet by happenstance, during what we learn is a reality storm. Something tremendous has caused the walls between the worlds to bend and quake and crack, and some hapless souls caught in the shivering have ended up at the Worlds’ End Inn, telling tales until the ripples settle. This collection is somewhat like Dream Country and Fables and Reflections, in that it takes place outside of what continuum of the larger story arc exists; there are discrete stories, but, unlike in the other two volumes, they are connected through the frame device.

The frame focuses on one man, Brant, and his traveling companion, Charlene, who had just been driving home from a business trip when a fabulous creature runs into the road, causing Brant to wreck the car; they wake in the Inn. As they accustom themselves to their new surroundings, they begin to hear tales. The first, of a sleeping city that traps its inhabitants in its dreams, isn’t one of my favourites, but it is told in a rather interesting way, both in its words and its images. There are no outlines; everything is blocks and shadows and and shapes, and there are no word balloons, only plain text narrative. It creates a very stark sensation. The second story is about as far in contrast from the first as it could be; our old friend Cluracan of the Fae tells it, about a diplomatic mission of his that turns into a political intrigue and tale of vengeance. Because it belongs to the Fae, it overflows with colour and details and whimsy. We meet another Queen of the Fae — Mab, this time, rather than Titania — and we get to see another imagined world, entirely apart from our earth. In The Sandman Companion, Gaiman states that he thinks this story fell flat, that it needed to be much longer to work well; I actually rather like it. I think the pace, which clips along with a rather casual shrug at cause and effect, suits Cluracan well.

The third story is one of the more fantastic in the series, among the best illustrated, and also revisits some old friends. A sailor lad names Jim decides to tell a true story here, in the Inn, where it might be believed, or if it isn’t, it won’t matter — a story he could never tell back at home, about an amazing voyage. This starts out, in many ways, like a classic eighteenth- or nineteenth-century sea tale; there are flavours of Treasure Island, Moby Dick, and Kipling. Jim takes to sea, and the boat he ends up on is chartered by none other than Hob Gadling — now a respectable businessman. They travel and talk and Hob passes on some wisdom. I love this for getting to see more of one of my favourite characters in the entire series; it’s magnificent to see Hob in-between his meetings with Dream, and it’s wonderful to see him look back at lessons learned with a touch of regret. He remembers the slave trade, which he took part in, because, at the onset, no one thought to question it as wrong; but now he feels ashamed for it, resolving to do better in the future — but with an awareness that, in the moment, you may not ever be able to tell right from wrong, and that he possesses hindsight on a near-unique scope. We learn at the end of the story that Jim is, in fact, a girl, approaching the age when she won’t be able to hide her gender anymore. Both her time on the sea and the era of the tall ships are ending, and the reader definitely gets a sense of mournfulness. So, too, a sense of romanticism; not everything is as pretty as a wistful memory makes it — as Hob Gadling is always swift to point out to us.

Next, an alternate history of America, where a remarkable young boy named Prez becomes President at the age of 18. Through this story, Gaiman explores politics from point of view that is both a fairy tale and semi-religious, a tale of promises made and hopes fulfilled — as they almost never are in our version of reality. It’s ideal and idyllic, a world where everything goes right in the 1970s and America enters a Golden Age more true and magnificent than any Golden Age has probably ever been. It ends as swiftly as any Golden Age must; Prez declines the calls to run for more than two terms and retires quietly. Things don’t suddenly become bad, but the shine’s gone off. And one day, Prez dies — though no one knows how or where, there’s a mythic awareness that it happens. The readers witness his conversation with Death and his choice to move on, through the worlds, to find more things to fix. There’s definitely a messianic quality to Prez, an implication that he comes when needed and never overstays his welcome, never falls prey to the downfalls of normal humans, never fades in the hearts of those who love him.

The next story is one of the most complex, exploring the lives of interdimensional undertakers, who live in the Necropolis, a City of the Dead tasked with maintaining the funereal customs of various worlds. This one, like many of the story in the Decameron or Canterbury Tales, nests within itself. A young apprentice speaks of his experiences; someone in his story tells about his mistress’s youth; the apprentice eventually has to tell his own tale within his tale. They twist and intertwine, spreading outward to the Inn, as well, as we’ve seen the apprentice wandering around and having conversations in the framework.

Through that framework, we learn, bit by bit, more about the Inn. It is a “free house”, a clever bit of play on Gaiman’s part. In Britain, a free house is a pub unattached to any brewery; for Worlds’ End, it means that it exists outside reality, attached to the bounds and rules of no world, entirely its own place. There is an implication that the current hostess may be a Hindu Goddess (Lakshmi, perhaps, or a version of her?). And people can come, and go, and pass through to worlds not their own. Towards the end of the collection, Charlene is asked for a story — and she replies that she has none. Except, in saying so, she does tell her own tale, a female story (the only one in the collection, really), and one of futility and frustration. Ultimately, she decides to stay, to work at the Inn, determining that she has nothing really worth returning to in her version of reality. When the storm ends and Brant wakes back up, he discovers that it is not as if Charlene has died, but as if she had never existed; her car is in his name, no one remembers her. And then the reader learns that everything in this volume has been told by Brant (who never had to share a story in the Inn) to a bartender.

The art in this volume may be the best in the series — at least it’s among the best. Evocative, enormously detailed, full of colour and nuance — it’s an absolute visual feast. One of the best centerfold splashes ever features a phenomenal sea monster, bursting up out of the ocean to dwarf the tall ship observing it. Perhaps the most spectacular series of images, however, comes towards the end of the issue, when the denizens of the Worlds’ End look out the windows and witness what they suppose to be the cause of the reality storm — a funeral procession of truly incredible proportions. It lasts over three full two-page splashes — a circumstance unique in the entire series. We see many, many familiar faces — Destiny, leading the way; Titania, Odin, Bast, Emperor Norton, Mervin, an angel, a raven. But whose funeral is it? We may make an educated guess, based on the attendees, but we have no confirmation. And when is this happening? Where? Is it even real? And, most important of all, how did it come to be? We don’t know yet — but we will.

Worlds’ End is fantastic and imaginative and explorative, but through it all, you feel an ebb. Things are receding, failing, ending. The energy at the end of Brief Lives, where you first sense that the greater story of the Sandman is nearing its close, continues here, though we hardly see Dream at all. The mood carries over. The reader approaches The Kindly Ones with trepidation, both wanting and not-wanting to know what’s going to happen, reluctant to confirm suspicions, but inexorably drawn to the story’s climax.

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Sandman, Volume 7: Brief Lives, by Neil Gaiman

Title: Sandman, Volume 7: Brief Lives
Author: Neil Gaiman
Year of Publication: 1994
Length: 168 pages
Genre: graphic novel – magical realism
New or Re-Read?: Re-Read
Rating: 4.5 stars

Brief Lives probably has the most cohesive plot of any of the Sandman collections, excepting maybe Volume 9, The Kindly Ones. In this collection, Delirium, youngest of the Endless, has conceived a fierce need to go in search of “the Prodigal”, Destruction, the middle of the siblings, who has abandoned his realm and who has not been seen in some 300 years. But she doesn’t want to go it alone (and is vaguely aware that she can’t, fractured and unstable as she is). She first asks the twins, the siblings nearest to her in age, Desire and Despair; both refuse. Then she asks Dream, who, surprisingly, consents — though his reasons have little to do with helping Delirium or finding Destruction, and far more to do with having an excuse to walk in the mortal world.

Dream, we learn, has just been dumped by his latest girlfriend, the witch Thessaly (from A Game of You), and he’s gone into quite the existential funk over it. Several of the inhabitants of the Dreamworld discuss how his mood affects their manifestation of reality:

Nuala: Brrr. Listen to that thunder. Poor Lord Morpheus. He must be very sad.

Mervyn: Nah. He enjoys it. I mean, hell, it’s a pose. Y’know? He spends a coupla months hanging out with a new broad. Then one day the magic’s worn off, and he goes back to work, and she takes a hike. Now, guys like me, ordinary Joes, we just shrug our shoulders, say, hey, that’s life, flick it if you can’t take a joke. Not him. Oh no. He’s gotta be the tragic figure standing out in the rain, mournin’ the loss of his beloved, so down comes the rain, right on cue. In the meantime everybody gets dreams fulla existential angst and wakes up feeling like hell. And we all get wet.

I like this little poke at the Dream-lord’s massive ego — he is, in many ways, a figure that takes himself quite seriously (as his sister Death frequently reminds him). So, both to shake himself out of this depressive fit — but also hoping that he might cross paths with his ex-lover — Dream agrees to accompany his sister on the search.

The search goes badly right from the start. Delirium has a list of people who were acquainted with Destruction, who might know his whereabouts, but they all suddenly die or disappear before Dream and Del can get to them. This is more worrying since these figures are immortal — some gods, some figures out of mythology, and some who have just refused to die. In one of the more memorable openings of the series, one chapter begins:

There are not many of them, all things considered: the truly old.

Even on this planet, in this age, when people consider a mere hundred years, or a thousand, to be an unusual span.

There are, for example, less than ten thousand humanoid individuals alive on this planet today who have personal memories of the saber-toothed tiger, the megatherium, the cave bear.

There are today less than a thousand who walked the streets of Atlantis (the first Atlantis. The other lands that bore that name were shadows, echo-Atlantises, myth lands, an they came later).

There are less than five hundred living humans who remember the human civilizations that predated the great lizards. (There were a few; fossil records are unreliable. Several of them lasted for millions of years.)

There are roughly seventy people walking the earth, human to all appearances (and in a few cases, to all medical tests currently available), who were alive before the earth had begun to congeal from gas and dust.

How well do you know your neighbors? Your friends? Your lovers?

Walk the streets of any city, and stare carefully at the people who pass you, and wonder, and know this:

They are there too, the old ones.

I love that passage. It’s chilling, unsettling, and somehow inspirational, all at the same time (a Gaiman specialty). And the first of these that we meet, we meet at his death; Bernie Capax remembers the stink of mammoth during his morning commute, and moments later, gets crushed by a construction site accident. He doesn’t want to believe it at first — after all, he’d made it so long, and for it to end like this? Who could blame him for feeling cheated at the last? But, as Death reminds him, “You lived what anybody gets, Bernie. You got a lifetime. No more. No less.” We find out later that Bernie was on Delirium’s list; somehow, Destruction left a trip-wire in his wake that’s disrupting any attempts to find him, often at great cost.

Dream and Del also incur some purely mortal collateral damage, as accidents and mishaps plague their travel. Eventually, Dream throws in the towel; he’s had enough, he isn’t getting what he wanted out of the trip anyway, and he’s tired of their efforts getting people killed. Delirium takes this poorly, throwing a fit, retreating to her realm, and locking it down; Death intervenes, chastising Dream for being callous and selfish, and he agrees to try again. After coaxing Del back out, the pair journeys to their eldest brother, Destiny, who tells them to seek out an Oracle who is of the Family — Dream’s son Orpheus. Orpheus reveals Destruction’s location in exchange for a boon which he can claim from his father; despite knowing full well what price he’s going to have to pay, Dream agrees, and off they go to find Destruction — who is, as fate would have it, on an island neighboring the one where Orpheus has been kept all these years.

The meeting is, if anything, anticlimactic. Destruction reiterates his reasons for leaving his realm — he doesn’t think that the Endless should behave as they do, toying with mortals and governing their lives — that mortals quite have the hang of it now on their own, and the functions of the Endless can go on without their personal supervision. (Clearly this is correct for Destruction — we do a plenty good job of that — but what happened with Dream’s absence from his realm at the very beginning of the series calls the truth of his assertion into question). The conversation ends to no one’s satisfaction, and Destruction decides to pack up and go on the move again. Dream returns to the other island and kills his son, at Orpheus’s own request.

I really, really enjoy this volume, for several reasons. I appreciate the progression of the saga’s overarching plotline and thematic concerns. I like getting to see more of Delirium, who is a fascinating figure in her own right. Her contradictory nature and unpredictability show best when she and Dream visit Destiny; when Dream has a minor breakdown, Delirium briefly reigns herself in in order to console him. She says it hurts, and she doesn’t like doing it — but she can, when the need is great. The idea isn’t explored much further, but I think it’s tremendously interesting. I also like getting to see Destruction, on his own, attempting like anything to create and finding that he cannot do so in any sort of satisfactory manner. But perhaps more than all of that, I like what this collection has to say about immortality. It anticipates American Gods (published in 2001, 7-8 years after these issues first appeared in stores) in many ways, particularly in the idea of how old gods and other mythological beings survive: namely, any way they can. Most poignant to me is the story of Ishtar, reduced to dancing in a seedy strip club for the scraps of sexual worship she can glean there. She doesn’t seem to take it too badly, honestly, but there are echoes of such greatness and such loss in some of her conversations with her friends. And then, when she takes herself out in rather spectacular fashion:

I know how gods begin, Roger. We start as dreams. Then we walk out of dreams into the land. We are worshipped and loved, and take power to ourselves. And then one day there’s no one left to worship us. And in the end, each little god and goddess takes its last journey back into dreams. … And what comes after, not even we know.

She’s a stunner, to the end, and no mistake, and she makes a powerful statement — even the gods are not truly immortal; only the Endless are, and even they, as we learn in this collection, can falter, perish, and be replaced by a new aspect of themselves.

Brief Lives also includes, in a flashback to the seventeenth century, an interesting commentary on Reason. Poised at the edge of the Age of Enlightenment, Destruction comments that man has turned away from other methods of explaining the world and has focused on reason.” It is no more reliable a tool than instinct, myth, or dream.  But it has the potential to be far more dangerous.” Dream agrees that it is a flawed tool at best. This is an interesting thing to consider, from a modern standpoint, in an age when science and faith so often find themselves at loggerheads — when we debate whether or not evolution should be taught in schools and whether or not religion ought to be allowed to govern what women can do with their own bodies. It’s interesting for me in particular because I somewhat straddle the line where reason is concerned. I love science, believe in science, am fascinated by science — but I have faith, too. I don’t see that the two have to be incompatible — the world is no less miraculous just because it’s composed of atoms and forces and chemical reactions — and yet there are so many who would insist on making them enemies. I think we need all of those things — instinct, myth, dream, and reason — in balance, to be the best versions of humanity that we can be. But that is, of course, only my own musing on the topic; I do love when Gaiman makes me think these thoughts.

In Brief Lives, you can really feel the saga spinning towards something. All the pieces are not only in place but now in motion. There’s more of an intensity to this volume, that will only ratchet up further in The Kindly Ones. Before that, though, we get the delightful imaginative exploration of World’s End

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