A GAME OF YOU by Neil Gaiman

It’s fitting that I sat down and read A GAME OF YOU so close to Halloween. Of all the SANDMAN comics I’ve read so far, this is by far the one that’s most disturbing for me and I’m not sure I can explain why, which really just makes it all the more unnerving. Gaiman has shown that he’s perfectly willing to write SANDMAN comics in which the title character is all but completely absent, and this is another of those stories. This one is built around Barbie, a character we met back during the Rose Walker saga, and what happens when some characters from a dying dream world come after her.

Barbie’s almost a completely different character in this one — she’s living in New York, is best friends with a drag queen and now instead of being mind-numbingly mainstream, she paints her face and goes window shopping at places where she can’t afford any of the items.

When she gets pulled into the dream world, we’re introduced to a slew of the toys from her childhood who are now characters helping her to fight the evil “Cuckoo.” And just because Barbie’s former stuffed toys are childlike little creatures — a monkey, a bird and a rat in a raincoat — it doesn’t save them from some pretty grisly deaths that are drawn in a way that doesn’t spare us any of the brutality. At the end of the day, that may be what creeped me out the most in the story — I could see that her friends were going to be picked off one by one, and the cartoonists don’t spare us any of the visuals — it’s all blood and gore and contorted corpses, and in the process it taints this childlike fantasy world, making it someplace even darker than it ever could be otherwise.¬†.

And the toys aren’t the only ones dying. A couple people from the real world die as well in a way that doesn’t seem particularly heroic, it all just seems kind of pointless and depressing. There are ironies throughout the story, Gaiman’s little humorous touches in the dialogue and the details, but in all this story is subtly dark and hopeless. In the end, this story just reminds me that it’s kind of a cruel, uncaring world, and I’m not certain I really needed the reminder.

PRINCE OF THORNS by Mark Lawrence

It’s all about the execution.

I always feel awkward trying to summarize the plot to a novel or movie because I always make it sound kind of stupid. Almost everything sounds stupid when you try to break it down to a brief sentence, and anyway, at the end of the day, it’s not the basic story setup that’s going to decide whether a book’s any good or not — it’s how well the author pulls off what they’re trying to do.

To me, that was the big difference between PRINCE OF THORNS and TOME OF THE UNDERGATES. Both books are centered around anti-heroes with the stress on the “anti” and less on the “hero,” and both were highly recommended to me by Fantasy-Faction.com. But while I found the characters in TOME OF THE UNDERGATES annoying, I really enjoyed PRINCE OF THORNS, and liked the way Lawrence changes our perception of Prince Jorg, our main character. Admittedly, Jorg is kind of a ridiculous name for our main protagonist, but once you get past that, the story is awesome. When we first meet Jorg, he’s the brutal leader of a gang of thugs, and as the story progresses he proves several times that he’s fearless, intelligent and as cold and calculating as the very best villains you’ve ever rooted against.

We also learn about Jorg’s past, and each new insight teaches us a little bit about the character and why he is the way he is. By the end of the book, we learned that the rules the story was governed by weren’t the rules we expected, and that there are villains behind the villains.

Lawrence draws strong characters throughout the story, including Makin and the Nuban, and I even found myself liking Rike, who makes me think of a stupider Black Dow from Joe Abercrombie’s books. Jorg emerges as an antihero, a bad guy we can’t help but root for because of the traits I’ve already listed and the sense of humor that pervades the book. That’s where TOME OF THE UNDERGATES swung and missed for me.¬†PRINCE OF THORNS hit it solidly on the barrel.

A STUDY IN SCARLET, By Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

During my junior year at Texas A&M I took a journalism class called “Journalism Theory,” and one of the major themes of the course had to do with the ability of humanity to understand and change its own reality through storytelling. There’s a number of different ways in which our storytelling affects our understanding of the world around us, but one of the examples that has most stuck in my mind was the way everyone knows what the inside of a courtroom looks like. I don’t think I’ve ever been inside a real courtroom, but if someone who clearly had too much time on their hands asked me to draw one, I could probably come up with a crude representation of one simply through the movies and TV shows I’ve seen. Admittedly, my drawing of a courtroom would have Jack Nicholson screaming “You can’t handle the truth!” at Tom Cruise and Demi Moore, but unless television has steered my wildly off course, my guess is I could put together a fairly reasonable courtroom without too much trouble.

I guess the same could be said of Sherlock Holmes. Everyone knows the phrase “Elementary, my dear Watson” — though I’m told that never actually shows up in any of the Sherlock Holmes stories — and I’ve seen the BBC series and the Robert Downey Jr. moves as well — but I’d never actually read one of Doyle’s Sherlock stories until I started THE COMPLETE SHERLOCK HOLMES with A STUDY IN SCARLET, the first of the Sherlock stories. To be honest, it was more enjoyable a read than I’d expected.

I knew it was initially written not to be an everlasting work of literature but to be widely-read stories for the mass public, but I was still surprised by how readable it was. Much of Dickens’ work was also highly popular in its time as well, but reading his novels take a certain amount of focus on my part. Reading SHERLOCK was far easier, and the story was downright gripping.

I was surprised by the way Doyle seems to love antiheroes in this story. Sherlock himself has not been shown to be a drug user just yet, but even in this introduction to the character we get to see some of his flaws, particularly his pride, though this is really a lesser part of the story. I certainly didn’t expect the story to stop mid-stream and completely change its POV, leaving the foggy streets of London for the American West. It’s through this story that we learn the backstory behind the murder Sherlock has just solved, and I came away from that with total sympathy for the murderer, making him if not an outright hero, than at least an antihero.

Of course, being familiar with the character of Sherlock, I was prepared for the way he solved the crime and the way the clues accumulated in what seemed to be a haphazard way and then were pulled together by Sherlock at the end, but I still have to be impressed with Doyle’s plotting. It was a fun read and I’m looking forward to reading the next story in the collection.

THE SANDMAN: SEASON OF MISTS by Neil Gaiman

I’ve now read four books in THE SANDMAN series, and the main character, the protagonist the entire series is named after, remains something of a mystery to me. I suppose it’s fitting that Morpheus, the King of Dreams, the being with so many names to so many different peoples, should prove to be too ethereal to entirely pin down through the first third of the series.

In a strange way, this collection made me appreciate the previous three even more. Through the first three books, Morpheus really hadn’t been in any danger. In the first book he’s captured, but not only does it seem impossible for them to harm him once they’ve got him, but they don’t really seem all that interested in the notion of trying to harm him beyond impotent threats. In the second and third books, Morpheus is just an immortal bad ass who’s clearly superior to the story’s villains, and once he gets involved, it’s literally deus ex machina.

But in this one, as he prepares for a possible showdown with Lucifer, there’s genuine tension there. Morpheus seems pretty certain that he will lose, but he’s going there anyway. I think the reason it worked so well was the sheer contrast with the previous books. We’ve never seen Morpheus nervous before, so it makes it pretty damn frightening when he is. And I’d never have felt that way while reading it if it hadn’t been for the previous three books giving me the slow build.

Episode 4 was my favorite in this collection, the one “In which the dead return and Charles Rowland concludes his education.” The ending to this chapter was pretty powerful, and I hope we meet Charles Rowland again somewhere along the way. It seems to me like you could write a whole spin-off comic about his adventures with Paine if you wanted to.

THE SANDMAN: DREAM COUNTRY by Neil Gaiman

DREAM COUNTRY consists of four different stories — Calliope, Dream of a Thousand Cats, A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Facade. Of the four, I probably like Dream of a Thousand Cats the most. Interestingly, Morpheus, the titular character, is only a secondary character in all the stories, and doesn’t even make an appearance in Facade.

Calliope, in which a writer purchases a captured muse and keeps her prisoner while Morpheus too was captured in the first SANDMAN books, was interesting to me primarily because of the backstory it hints at with Morpheus. Once Morpheus comes on the scene, he wraps things up easily, but along the way we learn that Morpheus once loved Calliope and had a child with her, though who that child is and where he/she is isn’t revealed. We’re also told that Morpheus and Calliope had a falling out over something to do with the child.

Dream of a Thousand Cats tells the story from the perspective of the cats — something that’s been done often enough that the idea seems borderline cliche to me now — but the story he tells from the cats’ perspective is compelling, and the humor at the end was a nice touch. It’s a sign of Gaiman’s talent that he takes an idea I’ve read several times before but does it so exceptionally well that I don’t mind at all.

A Midsummer Night’s Dream is the issue that won the World Fantasy Award — the only comic book to ever win the award — and I can see why. It was a story that was actually set up in the previous book, when Morpheus offered Shakespeare an unspoken deal, and that actually impresses me as much as anything Gaiman does in the story, which aims high and hits the mark. Nothing much really happens in the way of action, which is probably why it isn’t my favorite of the stories, but it’s a nice homage to Shakespeare from the best British fantasy author of this generation.

The final story, Facade, was probably my least favorite. It’s a bit depressing, and centers around a character I believe already existed within the D.C. Comics universe, but I have no idea who she is. It’s a sad little tale, but the character was only briefly introduced and her story isn’t very long, so while she’s a sympathetic character, I’m not terribly invested in her fate one way or the other.

THE SANDMAN: THE DOLL’S HOUSE by Neil Gaiman

Well, the second collection in The Sandman series is now under my belt.

Again, the story that felt the most Gaiman-esque to me, the one that had the least to do with the overriding plot of the series, was the one I liked the most. That’s not to say that I didn’t like the main plot revolving around Rose Walker, but to me the most thought-provoking and interesting of the comics was “Men of Fortune,” in which Morpheus is in a medieval tavern and hears a man boasting that death is a fool’s game and he has no intention of ever dying. Morpheus asks the man if he’s serious, and when he’s answered in the affirmative, asks that the man meet him, in that very inn, in another 100 years. The rest of the comic consists of the duo meeting every 100 years and the man telling Morpheus how the last century has treated him — sometimes he’s on top of the world, sometimes he’s hit rock bottom. It’s a totally different story from the rest of the collection, so perhaps it’s that change of pace that makes me appreciate the story so much.

My other favorite part was the serial killers’ convention, which was darkly humorous, especially some of the forum topics they discussed.

Morpheus is kind of an interesting protagonist because to this point he seems omnipotent, so Gaiman had to center the story around Rose, who is obviously vulnerable to some of the creatures around her, so while we as readers weren’t at all concerned about Morpheus’ safety, Gaiman established the stakes all around Rose and her well-being. Saying that, of course, we’re given a hint that Morpheus may be vulnerable, so that may be something to watch for in future issues.

THE SANDMAN: PRELUDES & NOCTURNES by Neil Gaiman

I’m not a big comic book fan but I am a big fan of Neil Gaiman, so I’m currently working my way through the ‘SANDMAN’ series, one of the most acclaimed comic book series of all-time, or so I’m told. Whenever I think of the series, I think of a documentary I saw once where Gaiman was talking about the SANDMAN series winning the World Fantasy Award, an honor no comic book had ever won before. No comic book has won it since, either, since the people in charge of the award changed the rules immediately afterwards so a comic book could never again win. When asked about it, Gaiman said it was like closing the barn door after the horse had not only gotten out, but had gotten out and won the Kentucky Derby.

I like that line.

PRELUDES & NOCTURNES isn’t like the rest of Gaiman’s fiction that I’ve read. Many of the stories are just straight-forward horror, a genre I’m not particularly fond of, though the AMERICAN GODS subplot in which the girls keep disappearing from the small town in which Wednesday drops Shadow off has some horror elements in the way it plays out.

The first story, SLEEP OF THE JUST, is a cool little horror story in which Morpheus outwaits his captors before finally taking his revenge. 24 HOURS is a pretty gruesome horror story in which Morpheus barely appears. Of the horror stories that open the book, those two are probably the most memorable to me, though I wouldn’t necessarily call them my favorite. Like I said, horror isn’t really my genre.

Not surprisingly, the most Gaiman-esque story of the bunch, THE SOUND OF HER WINGS, was my favorite of the bunch, as Morpheus feels driftless after recovering his stolen objects in the previous stories. It also introduces Death, my favorite character of the series so far, the happy-go-lucky Goth chick who collects human souls and escorts them to the Other Side.

Morpheus himself is still a mystery by the end of this collection. We know he’s patient and seems to be powerful, as he receives respect from many of the characters we meet, including Lucifer Morningstar, so it’s somewhat a mystery exactly how he was captured by Burgess’ simple spell in the first place. In Hell, we meet a prisoner who begs Morpheus to release him, asking the Dreamlord if he still loves him. Morpheus replies that he does, but hasn’t forgiven him yet, again hinting at backstory without giving us any real info besides that fact that Morpheus can be tough-hearted when he feels he needs to be.

While Dream is probably my favorite, I’m intrigued by Cain and Abel’s presence in the story as well, and hope they get a bit more to do as I move forward with the series.