Tag Archives: mythology

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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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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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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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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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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Sandman, Volume 6: Fables and Reflections, by Neil Gaiman

Title: Sandman, Volume 6: Fables and Reflections
Author: Neil Gaiman
Year of Publication: 1993
Length: 264 pages
Genre: fantasy/magical realism – graphic novel
New or Re-Read?: Re-Read
Rating: 3.5 stars

This collection has some really great stories, and some that I find rather unengaging. As with Dream Country, there’s really no through-line here, so it’s probably best to take each story individually.

Fear of Falling– The opening story, which, honestly, I find a little pedestrian. It’s the sort of thing every writer indulges in sooner or later, I guess: a story about creation, a story about when it fails, a story about fearing success. The best thing in this episode is the advice Morpheus gives to the struggling writer/director in his dream: “Is it that bad to fail, that hard to fall? Sometimes you wake, and sometimes, yes, you die. But there is a third alternative.”

Three Septembers and a January – I love this story to bits. It is the true tale of one of history’s quirks, Joshua Abraham Norton, the First Emperor of the United States from 1859 until his death in 1880. As Joshua is contemplating suicide, Despair tempts her older brother Dream into a bet: to see if Dream can claim and keep him, rescuing him from Despair, without his falling into Desire or Delirium. Against his better judgment, Dream takes the bet, and gives Joshua a dream of being Emperor — and so he becomes. What follows is an incredibly charming story of how he sets himself up in imperial majesty, never mind his actual poverty. He becomes a beloved local celebrity in San Francisco, cherished for his eccentricities, protected from persecution, selfless and benevolent in all his dealings. Desire cannot tempt him, and as Delirium notes, “His madness keeps him sane.” The best thing about this story is that, as I said, it is entirely true — or, given that (as we learned several volume ago) things need not have happened to be true, I should better say — it happened, it is historical reality, well-documented. It’s a wonderful inspiration, a testament to the power of a dream to sustain a life, to keep someone going. Cocooned in his perfectly sane madness, Emperor Norton is inviolable.

Thermidor – Lady Johanna Constantine, who we met back in Hob Gadling’s origin story, is on a mission from Morpheus in the fading days of the Reign of Terror. An Englishwoman, undercover in Paris, steals the head of Orpheus, the Dreamlord’s son (the head, incidentally, is still alive and talking, which we’ll learn more about later) and take it to safety. Robespierre, we learn, seeks to destroy the head, as he seeks to destroy everything he dismisses as superstition, sacrificed to the altar of Reason. The story progresses through several philosophical tangents, exploring the nature of liberty, the double-edged sword of revolution, and the place that the mystical and the impossible have in a post-Enlightenment world (a thread which the series will pick up again later). I like this story a lot, largely for that mix of historical reality and the fantasy of the Dreamworld. I also loved seeing Johanna Constantine in action, and I always wished she would have become a more regularly featured character.

The Hunt – In the modern age, a grandfather tells his reluctant granddaughter a story of their people. In the Old Country, a young man named Vassily meets a gypsy woman, who in exchange for dinner gives him a chain with a picture of a beautiful duke’s daughter on it, and he decides to set out in search of her. From there, it becomes largely an Eastern European/Russian fairy tale — with a couple of notable diversions. For one thing, the thin veil over the story is that “the people” are werewolves. For another, Vassily runs into Lucien, Dream’s librarian, who has misplaced a book that has fallen into Vassily’s hands — and thus, when Vassily most needs assistance, Lucien becomes the unlikely fairy godmother to help him out of trouble.

August – Late in the reign of Emperor Augustus, formerly mere Caius Octavius, the emperor disguises himself as a beggar for a day and discusses the world he rules with an actor named Lycius. I really enjoy this story in some ways, and it irritates me in others. It’s incredibly inactive — most of the panels are Augustus and Lycius just sitting on a stoop, talking. Some of the history is good, but a lot of it is completely wrong, the stuff of popular misconceptions about Roman society. I don’t know whether I’m disappointed in Gaiman for shoddy research, when he’s usually so precise about it, or if I should let it slide on the basis of this being 20 years old and thus an entire generation of scholarship behind. The most interesting part is the explanation of why Augustus set the boundaries of the Roman empire where he did — and, historically, the Empire’s swift decline began when they over-extended themselves. By Gaiman’s account, this had to do with a prophecy, that Rome would either flame and sputter for a few hundred years, or else spread to the ends of the earth and rule for ten thousand years. (Personally, I’d give quite a lot to see a graphic novel series on that version of history). Overall, this one somehow falls flat for me, which is odd, since the material should’ve been a gimme.

Soft Places – A young Marco Polo gets lost in a desert sandstorm and finds himself stumbling through the veils of time and reality, meeting with people from the past and the future, as well as our old friend Fiddler’s Green. I like the inherent concept behind this one — the very idea of “soft places” where reality thins, time bends, and the mystical collides with the mundane — but somehow this is an issue that never sticks with me. Somehow the characters just don’t reach out and grab, and while the art pretty perfectly reflects the story, that also means it ends up a whitewash in my mind. So, Soft Places is effective in weird ways, but not one of my favourites from this volume.

Orpheus – This is a good if not particularly inventive retelling of the myth of Orpheus, the musician whose bride dies on their wedding day, who goes to the Underworld to find her, only to lose her through his own lack of faith before he reaches the realm of the living again. The best thing about this storyline, which spans several issues, is the integration of the Endless into the tale. Orpheus is, in this version of the tale, the son of Calliope and Morpheus — an interesting twist, since most versions put him as the son of Calliope and Apollo, and in “August”, Augusts mistakes Morpheus for Apollo. That’s one of those little ways Gaiman twines his stories together, that you might not appreciate on the first or even the fifth read, but which curls there, underneath, waiting for you to notice it. Anyway — we meet, for the first time, the entire family of the Endless gathered for Orpheus’s wedding to Eurydice, including the missing prodigal, here called only Olethros — which translates as “Destruction”. When Eurydice dies, as in the myth, Orpheus wants to go to the Underworld for her; here, the decision involves the Endless. Dream initially refuses to help, and father and son quarrel, but Uncle Destruction sends Orpheus to talk to Death — who says the way to get in and out of the Underworld alive is for her to agree not to perform her function on him. The myth progresses as we know it, all the way through the less-often-told story of Bacchantes tearing him to pieces (in a few rather gruesomely detailed pages) and his still-sentient head floating down the river.

The Parliament of Rooks – Another one that fails to impress me. Of all the elements of the Dreamworld, the Eve-Cain-Abel part always seemed weird and out of place to me. They always seem like they’ve come in from a very different kind of storytelling, and so I never much enjoy their presence. The best note in this story is Eve’s tale of the three wives of Adam, from the Jewish apocrypha.

Ramadan – This story has some of the best art in the series, though I find the tale itself somewhat lacking. The sultan of Baghdad believes that he is living in the most glorious city in the most glorious time ever created, and he strikes a deal with Morpheus to keep it so forever, in the Dreamworld. And so Morpheus locks the city in a magic ball, removing its glory from the real world but preserving it forever in fantasy. The story ends in what was then modern Baghdad, in 1993 — eerily similar to what is modern Baghdad in 2012, war-ravaged and destitute, but still a place where a young boy might dream of a golden past.

Overall, there’s a lot in this volume about the place where dreams and the mundane world collide, and that’s a theme I really enjoy. There are also a lot of threads, less pronounced, about family, other relationships, and their value. From Vassily’s choice to prize a soulmate above wealth and carnal delights, to Augustus’s pronounced familial disappointments, to the amazing love that wraps Emperor Norton, to, of course, the tangled web of the Endless. It centers, ultimately, on Morpheus’s fraught relationship with his son. Orpheus disowns him in a moment of despair, and unyielding Morpheus refuses to reconcile even after tragedy befalls his son. If you know where the story’s headed, you can feel what it’s beginning to spin to in this volume, as certain aspects of the story pick up more energy and as more information falls into place. Fables and Reflections is thus oddly situated between plot-advancing and ponderous, displaying both the overall arc of the series and the imaginative exploration at which Gaiman excels.

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