Tag Archives: magical-realism

The Ocean at the End of the Lane, by Neil Gaiman

Title: The Ocean at the End of the LaneOceanLane
Author: Neil Gaiman
Year of Publication: 2013
Length: 181 pages
Genre: magical realism
New or Re-Read? New
Rating: 4 stars

This is a strange little book, but thoroughly compelling.

The narrator (who, as usual, resembles Neil Gaiman more than he doesn’t, though he confesses in the afterword that the familial circumstances are nothing like his own) is a middle-aged man returning to the village he lived in as a child, for a funeral. Wandering in avoidance of other people, he finds himself at the Hempstock house at the end of the lane, and remembers that, forty years earlier, a strange man committed suicide in a car there. The narrative then drops us back through the decades, where the narrator is a seven-year-old boy in a family facing financial difficulties and emotional tension.

The stranger’s death sets off a strange chain of events, unleashing an eldritch creature who wants to destroy the narrator’s family and, perhaps, the world as we know. Standing between him and danger is Lettie Hempstock, who takes responsibility for him because, it seems, responsibility is a bit of a family trait. Lettie is eleven, and may have been eleven for a very long time. She has deep knowledge, considerable power of her own, and an utterly normal way of talking. She promises to protect the narrator, no matter what, and he thinks he’d die for her.

Gaiman’s prose is, as ever, entrancing — elegant and brutal at the same time. He can paint you the mysticism of the Fae and a chillingly mundane reality in one smooth stroke. There’s a lot of power in juxtaposition.

This book is, at its heart, a childhood fantasy — in the very least twee and charming way I could possibly mean those words. Horrors are everywhere when you’re a kid, and the world is so much bigger than you can possibly comprehend. So of course you wander off the path — if you didn’t, you’d never find out anything. The woods behind your house go on forever, and there really could be an ocean at the end of the lane, for all you know. And adults are mysterious, inexplicable creatures. Creatures who can be quite thoroughly menacing, because, as this book points out — and as too many abuse victims have discovered through the ages — they are large, and powerful, and who would ever believe a child with an incredible story? Even a child just a few years older than you are seems impossibly more skilled, an initiate into mysteries you know nothing about yet — but will, someday. It’s a terrifying way to exist. It’s a wonder any of us get past it, that we don’t just freeze up in anxiety and indecision and refuse to step either forward or back.

And yet, for all of that, don’t you miss it?

Not all the time, of course, but I think most of us have a little piece of our hearts that still yearns for the days when anything seemed possible, even if the anythings were horrible. A part of us that could still believe in the incredible, in such a primal way that’s hope and fear mixed together. We remember when the world seemed bigger, when more things seemed possible, when we hadn’t learned just how many limitations and constrictions the world will place on us, and we regret what age and experience have done to us, what they’ve taken away. Cynicism builds walls, makes your feet tread familiar paths. It’s this bittersweet nostalgia that Gaiman captures so beautifully, and that is the real genius behind The Ocean at the End of the Lane.

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Children of the Night, by Mercedes Lackey

Title: Children of the Night (Diana Tregarde #2)ChildrenoftheNight
Author: Mercedes Lackey
Year of Publication: 1990
Length: 320 pages
Genre: urban fantasy
New or Re-Read? Re-Read
Rating: 3 stars

My first problem with this book is figuring out when it’s set relative to Burning Water. Though the second book in the series, published later, it seems to take place earlier. Much earlier, perhaps. 10-15 years earlier, possibly, given that Burning Water is explicitly set in the late ’80s, but Children of the Night has all these weird references to Watergate. But that’s never made exactly clear, and that sort of thing will bother me for an entire book.

Sometime in the 1970s-ish, Diana Tregarde is living in New York, helping out a friend by keeping an eye on her occult store while the friend is out of town. A lot of her days there involve protecting wanna-bes from themselves, protecting dabblers from . As a Guardian, she has to help anyone who asks for it, so when a young Romany boy shows up looking for sanctuary, she helps to cover his tracks — but she can’t move fast enough to save him from the predatory “Master” Jeffries, an elusive creeper who sets off Diana’s alarms the first time she sees him. Unfortunately, Diana’s also dealing with psychic blowback from a mysterious earlier encounter with a damaging paranormal creature, which Lackey dangles over the reader’s head for most of the book and then only sort of explains to any satisfaction.

By twist of fate, Jeffries is also the new de facto manager of Wanderlust, a rock band for which Dave, one of Diana’s ex-boyfriends, currently plays. Jeffries exerts some strange control over Dave and his bandmates, transforming them into the super-successful Children of the Night — but at a high price. Dave finds himself constantly tired except when he’s playing music, hardly able to function during daylight hours, and ravenously hungry all the time. And then his bandmates start turning seriously sadistic. Dave has to decide whether to get with their game or to find some way to retain his sanity and morality despite Jeffries’s influence. Eventually, Diana traces some weird deaths to Jeffries, and the plots collide.

Children of the Night is a weaker book in many ways than Burning Water, and that combined with the earlier setting makes me wonder if this wasn’t written first but published later. Diana Tregarde is a less compelling character, more waffly, less capable. The secondary “protagonist” (a term I’m using pretty loosely here) isn’t terribly sympathetic. And the writing itself just isn’t as strong. There’s a heavy over-reliance on italics, both for emphasis and for internal monologues. Lackey has her usual problem with the rapidity of the climax and denouement (and I really look forward to the day when I can review one of her books without noting that), but through the rest of the book, the tension builds at a good pace.

I do enjoy this book’s approach to vampires (never a favorite theme of mine in general). The antagonists are two different types of non-traditional vampires: psychic vampires, who feed off of energy rather than blood, and the gaki, a hungry spirit which can take the form of smoke or mist. Tregarde draws from Japanese tradition for the gaki, though the creature actually seems to originate in Indian folklore. And then there’s the actual vampire, the traditional blood-sucking kind, who undermines the stereotypes in satisfying ways. If more modern paranormal followed the same lines as Lackey’s early entries into the urban-fantasy genre, I might be more interested in them on the whole. From back in 1990, she puts Meyer and Harrison utterly to shame.

So, overall, I think this is the weakest Diana Tregarde novel, but it’s still a fine investment of a few hours. The plot is captivating enough, the psychic vampires are a nice modern twist on an ancient concept, and Lackey’s exploration of magical concepts is always entertaining.

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Burning Water, by Mercedes Lackey

Title: Burning Water (Diana Tregarde #1)BurningWater
Author: Mercedes Lackey
Year of Publication: 1989
Length: 336 pages
Genre: urban fantasy
New or Re-Read? Re-Read
Rating: 4 stars

Something strange is going on in Dallas: a series of animal mutilations, grouped in threes and spaced about three weeks apart, growing in intensity and in general gruesomeness with each new cycle. When the crimes turn from animal slaughter to murder of Dallas residents, detective Mark Valdez calls in the cavalry in the form of his old friend Diana Tregarde, a Guardian with considerable magical powers. Mark’s psychically sensitive, himself, and has gotten the whiff of something supernatural around these murders. He brings Di on as a “cult specialist”, so far as the DFW PD is concerned, to cover for the occult matters they begin investigating.

The culprits, Mark and Diana learn (and the reader knows from the beginning, so I’m not giving anything away here) are reincarnations of the Aztec deity Tezcatlipoca and his handmaidens, in the bodies of a fashion photographer and his four native-blooded muses. Driven by the deities inhabiting them, they set out on a crusade to rid their America of the invaders who stole it from the Aztec people a few centuries ago. (Exactly why they move up out of Mexico and into Dallas to do this is never 100% explained, but never mind). Their ritual sacrifices are ratcheting up to something big, and it’s up to Mark and Diana to figure out what and to stop them.

This is not just urban fantasy, but also a great thriller. Mark and Diana have to put the pieces of the puzzle together, and while the reader does get to see behind the villains’ scenes as well, that doesn’t answer all of the questions from the start, so there’s still a lot to discover along with the protagonists. Lackey doesn’t shy away from the gore: the descriptions of what happens to Tezcatlipoca’s victims are unsparing, and it really helps to drive the sense of urgency to the novel. As with most of her books, Lackey demonstrates a firm grasp of how the magic in her world works, which I always appreciate. Magic has to have rules, and fantasy novels that ignore that tend to piss me off. Lackey knows what she’s doing in that regard: Diana operates in certain ways based on her own internal power, whereas the Aztecans are stealing power from those that they sacrifice, and then the power manifests in ways that make sense. I don’t know enough about Aztec mythology or culture to know how accurately she portrays any of it, but it doesn’t seem wildly out of line, and it’s definitely a refreshing change from the usual Old World representations of magic.

What I find really cool is that — this book feels more modern than it is. Ignoring a few fashion references, the limitations of computers, and the lack of cell phones, it has the energy and edginess I associate with more recent entries in the urban fantasy genre. It was also one of the first books to treat with modern paganism as something, well, normal. I mean, overlooking the resurrected Aztec gods and things. But for a book written in 1989 and set in 1986, it does a lot to normalize paganism as a religion, and I enjoyed seeing the view of it from that far back.

This book does have the somewhat typical Lackey problem of rushed climax, but it does at least allow a little room for denouement. I actually find the penultimate incident, just before Mark and Diana go to the final confrontation, super-interesting and inventive. Lackey also does get somewhat heavy-handed with the metaphysical explanations at a few points. I don’t really mind it, since I enjoy reading about those things and contemplating them, but to someone with less investment in them, I can see where it could start to grate. I also wonder how much of that has to be attributed to its publication date, when less of the reading public was likely to be familiar with the concepts she’s describing.

However, despite those drawbacks, I can cheerfully recommend Burning Water to urban fantasy fans of all stripes, especially if you’re interested in getting a somewhat earlier look at the genre. I think particularly anyone who enjoys Kim Harrison’s work or the Sookie Stackhouse novels would find a lot to appreciate in Diana Tregarde. I personally like it much, much better than I liked the few Hollows novels I managed to get through, not least because it has a more sensible heroine and a world with better internal consistency. I’d also recommend it to someone who enjoys the Pendergast novels but also enjoys fantasy, because these have a similar tone to Preston & Child’s work, particularly to some of the earlier books in the series — just that where P&C use speculative science as their prime motivator, Lackey uses magic. Similar feel, but different forces at work.

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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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Practical Magic, by Alice Hoffman

Title: Practical Magic
Author: Alice Hoffman
Year of Publication: 1995
Length: 317
Genre: magical realism
New or Re-Read?: re-read
Rating: 4.5 stars

This is one of those things where I love the book, and I love the movie, but they are completely different stories, and I love them in very different ways. Most people know the movie but not the book, and in a lot of ways, that’s a shame. The book is not as easy to digest. The characters are more complex and not always as likeable, but they’re very real. But that’s a lot of why I like it. I find something to empathise with in almost all of the main characters, and sometimes it’s for their flaws rather than for their virtues. Sally’s sense of justice, Gillian’s need to be adored, Antonia’s childish selfishness, Kylie’s spooky intuition. I don’t identify with any one of them entirely, but I can see some part of myself in each, and that makes the book thoroughly enjoyable.

The story: Sally and Gillian, orphaned at an early age, grow up with their aunts (or possibly great-aunts; it’s never made quite clear, but it doesn’t seem possible, age-wise, that Jet and Frances are their mother’s sister). Strange things happen all around their family, giving them a reputation for witchcraft and leading to the girls being ostracized by their peers — but the women of their town still come to the aunts for advice and help. The sisters grow up quite close, having no other options for companionship, despite how different they are; they also learn learn by negative example, watching the women who come to the aunts, crazy for love. They both end up building high walls around their hearts, though in different ways. Sally eventually does love and marry, but falls into a deep year-long depression when she’s widowed; Gillian begins using and losing men from the age of 14 on, tearing through hearts with no conscience or consequence, until a brute named Jimmy hooks her but good. Both girls end up running away from their childhood home, though it takes Sally rather longer to make the break. They don’t see each other for eighteen years, during which time Sally’s daughters grow into teenagers — nowhere near as close as she and Gillian were. Antonia is spoiled and self-centered and often quite cruel to younger, awkward Kylie.

Their lives up-end, though, when Gillian turns up unexpectedly with Jimmy dead in the car, believing she accidentally murdered him by dosing him with belladonna. She and Sally bury him beneath a lilac bush which is soon overteeming with unseasonal blooms. His malevolence bleeds from beyond the grave, putting all four women at each others’ throats until they can determine to come together to rid their lives of the influence (with a little help called in from the aunts).

The book isn’t called Practical Magic for nothing; the magic is far less overt in the book than in the movie, almost accidental in lots of ways, nothing more than folklore in others. But it definitely is still there, an undercurrent — whole sections of the book will go by that are just about life, plain and simple, and then one little thing will pop up to remind you that the Owens women are not like everyone else. But throughout it all, they are also still women — who grow, and make mistakes, and snipe at each other, and regret it.  There’s a lot in there about growing up — not just in the obvious ways, as we see both sets of sisters through the ever-tumultuous teenage years.

It was Gillian’s story, more than any other, that hit me this time around. Not that I’ve ever been as reckless as she is, but her lesson is one of recovering from damage and learning to trust. For both her and Sally, the romance is another understated theme — but an important one. Love catches them both by surprise, but when it hits them, it seems to do so like a ton of bricks. Things fall into place, despite the challenges, despite their damage, and when they do, both the women know it’s meant to be. And I find that inspiring.

Practical Magic is a great book and terribly compelling. It weaves reality in with the paranormal in a way that is so simple and elegant — no flash, no pretense, just human lives that happen to be touched by this little bit of something extra. Alice Hoffman is wonderful with creating complex, dynamic characters who are at once so special and so relatable. Highly recommended — especially if you like the movie. The book is different, as I said — less simple, less comical, with a more subdued supernatural element — but still definitely worth the try.

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Good Omens, by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett

Title: Good Omens
Author: Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett
Year of Publication: 1990
Length: 367 pages
Genre: well, I shelve it at the end of my historical fiction section, but that’s because I’ve got a somewhat warped sense of humour
New or Re-Read?: Re-Read, many, many times
Rating: 5 brilliant, glittering stars

When I’m reading a book and come across a passage I really like, some quote I want to write down later or remember forever, I have a terrible habit of dog-earing the bottom corner of the page.

The bottom of Good Omens looks like a particularly jagged comb.

Apart from being one of my all-time favourite novels, Good Omens just has so many of my all-time favourite passages in it, and I attribute that to the combination of genius you get by mixing up Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett — two of my all-time favourite authors. Pratchett’s irreverence and Gaiman’s ethereal qualities, with the sense of the ludicrous profundity that they both possess, together make for a fantastic book, capable of being laugh-out-loud funny and spiritually transformative in the same paragraph.

So what is this book about? Well, the Apocalypse. Happening on a Saturday (in 1990). Eleven years earlier, the demon Crowley manages to misplace the Antichrist (with some help from a Satanic nun), so that while the powers of Heaven and Hell think they’re focusing their efforts on influencing him towards Good or Evil, they are in fact just confusing a normal child, while the Antichrist, alias Adam Young, grows up as normal as you could please in an idyllic English country village. He’s a good-natured troublemaker, the leader of his gang, the Them, and has astonishing powers of imagination and a limitless capacity for belief in the incredible. When he turns eleven, gears start moving to start the Apocalypse — but Crowley and his angel friend Aziraphale, who have been on Earth for six thousand years and rather gotten to like the human race, decide to try and put a stop to it. Swept up in this mess are Anathema Device, professional descendent, whose ancestress Agnes Nutter wrote the only truly accurate book of prophecy in the history of the world; Newton Pulsifer, a would-be computer engineer who breaks everything electronic he touches; and a whole host of villagers, Atlanteans, Tibetans, and other phenomena.

I never can decide what my favourite aspect of this book is. The moral center, as it were, is obviously Adam, who starts to get caught up in the idea of remaking the world in a more favourable image, the ichor in his soul tugging at him, and has to decide what would really be best. He and the Them are pretty amazing. The description of Pepper (and the explication of her name) is a dog-eared page; sensible Wensleydale and grungy Brian fill out the quartet in excellent balance, and through them, the reader experiences the awe of an idealised childhood. This certainly doesn’t mean that everything is perfect and flawless — do you remember being a kid? The best days were the messy adventures, the ridiculous schemes, the trouble you got into but had had too good a time to care. Adam makes sure his friends have that damn near every day — until Armageddon starts spinning things out of control. So that’s a lot of fun to watch happen. (Though I do wonder if it will resonate quite as strongly for this generation’s kids, who are less used to taking off on their bikes, taking over the quarries and ravines that adults won’t go near, scaling trees, skinning knees, finding impossible messes, tangling in nettles, staying out until the last possible minute you could get away with, and all the other things that used to be de rigeur for an active childhood. I remember that from my early years; I don’t know that all modern kids have the same experience — which is sad).

But then there are Aziraphale and Crowley, who, while not the center of the story itself, are nonetheless the impetus behind the narrative. For six thousand years, they’ve organised a careful neutrality between them; when Crowley does something evil, Aziraphale balances it with something good, and vice versa. Neither side gets an advantage, but everyone can demonstrate what brilliant progress they’re making. Aziraphale currently runs a used book store, mostly as a place to store rare books where no one will take them from him; Crowley wears sunglasses at night, drives a classic car, and practises horticulture by means of terrorism. But they’ve realised they actually have more in common with each other than with their ostensible colleagues and immediate superiors. They’re a classic odd couple, and it’s a brilliant pairing. As they put it, towards the end of the book:

“I’d just like to say,” [Aziraphale] said, “if we don’t get out of this, that… I’ll have known, deep down inside, that there was a spark of goodness in you.”
“That’s right,” said Crowley bitterly. “Make my day.”
Aziraphale held out his hand.
“Nice knowing you.”
Crowley took it.
“Here’s to the next time,” he said. “And… Aziraphale?”
“Yes.”
“Just remember I’ll have known that, deep down inside, you were just enough of a bastard to be worth liking.”

Aziraphale and Crowley are probably the ultimate fan favourites of the entire book. When fancastings get discussed, it’s usually about them (and I’m all for Jude Law and Tom Hiddleston, respectively, for what it’s worth). But then you get some of the other humans. Anathema Device is a witch in the same cast as Discworld’s, practical and quick-thinking. Poor Newt is sort of charmingly pathetic. The history of the Witchfinders’ Army is entirely ridiculous. Andthen there are the Four Horsemen, riding inexorably towards Adam (on motorcycles), who are some of the most evocatively drawn characters I’ve ever experienced. From them, I get what might be my favourite passage in the entire book, if only because I have so often found it applied to myself. And it is, well, rather perfect.

The men in the room suddenly realized they didn’t want to know her better. She was beautiful, but she was beautiful in the way a forest fire was beautiful: something to be admired from a distance, but not up close.

And that’s sort of the way the whole book is written — the language isn’t but so sophisticated, it’s not a difficult read, but it’s nonetheless complexly woven, layered and nuanced, and capable of striking you right to the core. Gaiman and Pratchett both have an ability to make the reader know exactly what they mean, to pull memories and feelings out of you.

So I don’t know what my favourite part of this book is, or even who my favourite cast members are, because the whole thing works together as a single organic unit, breathing and pulsing, as a truly excellent book should. My real favourite thing about it, then, is probably what it has to say about being human — about making mistakes, about how we create the world we live in, what our brains can cope with and how they slide around the things they can’t. The last two pages of this book may be the most incredible commentary on the grace of the human condition I’ve ever read.

The book is also hilarious. It’s fantastically witty, and broadly comic, and delightfully absurd. It’s crammed with sly references, as is so often the case with both Gaiman’s and Pratchett’s works, little nuggets of brilliance for an avid reader to discover (individually or with the help of annotations). But none of that is what makes it great. What makes this a five-star book for me is that incisive quality, that ability the words have to cut straight through me and expose my soul. Only the very best books have that magic. Good Omens possesses it in spades. And that’s why I’ve read it so many times, why I can return to it again and again and always feel the book in a new way.

At the end of this re-read, I find myself suddenly dying for — not a sequel, precisely, but just some sort of follow-up short story. And wouldn’t this be the year for it? 2012, with all the histrionics that entails? And Adam Young, I realised, would be 33 this year, and how perfect is that? I just want to know they’re all doing — him, and the Them (but especially Pepper), and Anathema and Newt, and Aziraphale and Crowley. What does the world look like for them, 22 years on?

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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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