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A Neil Gaiman Review

December 21, 2007

For the Reading the Author Challenge, I decided to catch up with one of my favourite authors: Neil Gaiman. I reread American Gods, Neverwhere, Anansi Boys (I listened to it), and Stardust and read Coraline and Preludes and Nocturnes (the first Sandman volume) for the first time. While I would have liked to also revisit Good Omens and Smoke and Mirrors, time got away from me! (I did read Gaiman’s latest short story collection, Fragile Things, earlier this year, if you want to see what I thought about it)

Gaiman Book Pile!While I’ve been reading Gaiman for a couple months, I decided that I wanted to do one big post so that I could look at the big picture, instead of just talking about the individual books. Most of you have at least a passing acquaintance with Gaiman, since many book bloggers are big fans, but just in case, I’ll mention that Gaiman is a contemporary fantasy writer who is strongly influenced by mythology and folklore. He doesn’t tend to create big new worlds, a la epic fantasy, instead he focuses on the meeting between the ‘normal world’ and either faeries, gods, or other folklore figures.

Anyone who’s read even a little bit about mythology has heard about the Hero’s Journey. Developed by scholar Joseph Campbell, it’s essentially a blueprint common to many myths and legends around the world. In it, an ordinary man or woman becomes a hero through a series of five steps: first she’s somehow called from ordinary life into a grand adventure, perhaps in search of treasure or love or something else, then he must endure trials and tribulations in an attempt to achieve his end. When she does get her goal, she must somehow return to her ordinary life (rather like reverse culture shock!) and, finally, he may use whatever he learned along his journey to help the world. Why does this matter? Because pretty much all of Neil Gaiman’s stories follow this pattern.

A typical Neil Gaiman hero is bumbling, or at least unaware of what’s really going on for most of the book. In American Gods, Shadow becomes the errand boy for Mr. Wednesday (on Mr. Wednesday’s insistence), who has some strange habits and appears in the most coincidental places. While Shadow is very efficient in the real world, he has to operate somewhat like a blindman in the world of mythology Mr. Wednesday plunges him into. The Fool (tarot card)In contrast, the protagonist of Neverwhere, Richard Mayhew, doesn’t function too well in either world. And while Shadows finds himself seeked out to begin his adventure, Richard stumbles over his, in the form of Door, a girl from the Underground. Coraline also accidently encounters an Other World, although she proves to be quite clever. Tristran Thorn of Stardust, begins his adventure due to a whim of the girl he’s in love with, Fat Charlie (one of Anansi’s Boys) both belong to the bumblers category with Richard: obviously, Gaiman’s quite fond of creating characters who are a bit like fools.

Of course, it’s quite helpful to the reader to have main characters plunged into new worlds for the first time. That way, the reader learns the new rules along with the character: it seems natural for all of these rules, which would usually be assumed, to be told to an outsider. It also makes it more fun; the reader can share the sense of wonder, or fear, right along with the hero. And make no mistake, Gaiman’s faeries and gods aren’t soft and cuddly. Coraline IllustrationCoraline must battle an Other Mother with long, curving fingers and black button eyes. Fat Charlie and his brother find themselves battling both the Bird Woman (who sends, among others, flamingos and vultures after them) and Tiger. Tristran must avoid an ancient witch-queen bent on cutting out the heart of the star he’s befriended, while Shadow and Richard face danger and difficulty after danger and difficulty. These are fairy tales of the old school, before Disney got his hands on them.

Gaiman excels at bringing the supernatural to life believably. The worlds he creates in each of his novels feel complete, as if they really do exist side-by-side with our everyday lives. He also has his plots down pat. The reader knows enough to know that the bumbling hero will triumph in the end, but that the way he gets there is going to be full of interesting twists and turns. Usually, he’s also strong in the area of characters (I’d argue that Stardust is an exception to this)-for me, the big test is if I can imagine the characters living after the book closes. If I close my eyes, I can see Richard, Shadow, Coraline, and Fat Charlie in situations Gaiman never wrote; all of them were that well developed. With the exception of Stardust, which focused much less on characterisation than normal (in my opinion, this was an intentional method to achieve the style Gaiman was going for), even Gaiman’s minor characters seem to leap off the page.

While his talent is consistent, his writing style tends to change from book to book. Reading multiple Gaiman books, the reader can see the way he plays with different approaches, evoking everything from a fairy tale in Stardust to a hard-boiled crime novel in American Gods. I find this one of the most appealing aspects of Gaiman: when I open a new book, I know I’ll get a well-written, engaging story, but I also have no idea what it’s going to sound like.

WordPress tells me that I’m almost at a thousand words, so I suppose I should wrap this up. If you haven’t read any Neil Gaiman before, you really should! I’m going to provide a few brief thoughts on each of the books I read, so that you can pick the one that sounds most appearling to you.
American Gods: a darker approach to urban fantasy, with many diversions and references to mythologies from all over the world, as I mentioned above its style is more hard-boiled, with Shadow driving across the northern Midwest of America with Mr. Wednesday, organising the old gods for a final showdown with the new ones (See Just Add Book’s review
Stardust: follows a more traditional fairy tale style; Tristran Thorn, part fae himself, must enter the land of faerie and bring a fallen star (who happens to be a young lady) back to his small British village of Wall; the characters aren’t as engaging as most Gaiman ones, but the work itself feels like cotton candy (in a good way) (See Andi of AndiLit’s review!)
Anansi Boys: a very comedic, verging in places on slapstick, tale of Fat Charlie and his part-god brother Spyder, it travels between England, Florida, and the Caribbean to tell a story based in African and Caribbean folklore; this one feels uplifting, like the hot sun on your face(also has the best description of a hangover I’ve ever read)
Neverwhere: imagines that there’s an alternate London Underground, the whole thing feels quite gritty as Richard Mayhew gets drawn into helping Door outwit the heartless assassins who killed her entire family
Coraline: nominally a children’s book, this one is very creepy (especially the illustrations); shorter than the rest, and despite its dark subject matter, it feels heroic. (See Yati of Finding Wonderland’s review!)
Preludes&Nocturnes: a graphic novel, the first I’ve ever read, I honestly didn’t enjoy it; I found the colours to be garish, the illustrations were often stomach-turning, and I wasn’t even sure in what order to read the panels! (to be fair, I’d never read a comic book before in my life) however, I really liked the last ‘episode’ of the eight, and the intro told me that that’s the one where Sandman found itself, so I’m going to give Vol. 2 a chance

34 Comments leave one →
  1. December 21, 2007 6:26 am

    *claps* Brilliant post, Eva! I think you summed up his work really well.

    And if you liked “The Sound of her Wings”, do, do, DO give the rest of The Sandman a chance! While I do like “Preludes & Nocturnes”, it’s my least favourite Sandman book by far. It’s easy to tell that he wasn’t sure where to take the story yet at that point. It’s also much more gory than the others. I remember that “24 hours” gave me nightmares. But from the last story on, The Sandman became more subtle, more complex, and it developed into the masterpiece it was to become. So by all means don’t be discouraged! The rest of the series is much more like that one last story than the rest of the book.

  2. December 21, 2007 8:18 am

    What a wonderful post Eva :) I want to put my arms around it and hug it! And if I could give a blue ribbon to post of the year, this may be it ;) But I am a bit partial to Neil Gaiman…

    I’m definitely bookmarking this post for the future when people ask me “why do you like him so much?” or “which book should I read?” People always ask which book is my favorite and I always say American Gods…when asked why, I usually respond..”well, it’s a bit complicated….” Now I’ll say “but you can go read this post!” :p

  3. December 21, 2007 4:31 pm

    My husband tells me that the second book in the Sandman series is much better than the first, and where the story really starts, and that he usually recommends people to start with the second book, because the first doesn’t appeal to so many people. This was years ago, when I was trying to read the first book and not enjoying it, but I’m going to give the series another chance, and even used it for some challenges.

  4. December 21, 2007 7:38 pm

    Nymeth, thanks! “24 Hours” gave me so many nightmares too…can you say ugh? I’ll definitely give the second volume another chance-our library has all of them. :)

    Chris, awww-you’re going to make me blush! I hate it when people ask what my favourite Neil Gaiman book is, because it depends on my mood!

    Dew, wish I had known that a bit earlier. ;) Of course, knowing me and my OCD about reading things in order, I probably would’ve ignored that advice. A few of the episodes in the first book truly, utterly repulsed me. Definitely going to give the second a try, though!

  5. December 21, 2007 7:50 pm

    Forgot to mention, Chris and Nymeth, that maybe we should have some kind of Gaiman love-fest at some point (when we’re not all so busy)…there’re so many of us who love him, and we have an obligation to help others discover him! :) Plus, this post could’ve been soooo much longer, you know, if I didn’t feel it’d be excessive. So it’d be fun if we all kind of analysed him!

  6. December 22, 2007 9:27 am

    Brilliant summation! I’m with Chris…I want to hug it,too :D

    If there is a Gaiman Love-fest to be had, count me in. I’m all for spreading the word of Neil to others :P

  7. December 22, 2007 12:29 pm

    Eva, Nymeth, Rebecca, Indeed there should be a love-fest…well that just sounds odd…ok, there should be something :/ We should do a Neil Gaiman Challenge ;) But there are already so many damn challenges next year!

  8. December 22, 2007 4:11 pm

    I can’t wait to catch up on your posts after the holidays. I did post today but I think it wil be the last until after Christmas.
    Merry Christmas,

  9. December 23, 2007 5:49 am

    I’d totally be in for a Neil Gaiman lovefest!

  10. December 24, 2007 7:33 am

    Rebecca, thanks! And great. :)

    Chris, hehe-I think a Neil Gaiman carnival thing might be a little easier than a challenge….you know? Or ‘Neil Gaiman Appreciation Month.’ We’ll figure it out after Christmas!

    Joni, Merry Christmas as well! Those ornaments on your site are adorable. :)

    Nymeth, great!

  11. December 28, 2007 9:42 am

    What a fantastic post! Great tribute and overview of Gaiman and his work.

    Sandman certainly has its share of garish art, no doubt about it. They are currently re-coloring the series in massive, expensive collections and they look so much better. It is a series that has some much better artists coming up as you get into it. It also is one that I don’t think you can really judge fully until you’ve read the whole thing. There are certainly more violent moments on the horizon, but in the end it turns out to be such a deep and rich experience. If you get through it and enjoy it I highly recommend reading Hy Bender’s book, The Sandman Companion. It delves into all the mythology of the story, etc. The second time I read through Sandman I read each story arc and then the corresponding chapters in the Bender book. It was fantastic!

  12. January 1, 2008 5:39 pm

    i’m one of the few who has never read any Gaiman, but i’m definitely going to rectify that in 2008!

  13. January 1, 2008 9:13 pm

    Carl, thanks! I’m almost through the second one and enjoying it much, much more. I think I was just traumatised by that 24 Hour thing! I wish I could afford the ones with the new colouring, but now that I know what to expect it doesn’t seem so garish. I think I was just shocked at the difference between the cover and the contents. :)

    Alison, I’m glad you’re going to read some Gaiman this year!

  14. doctoralstudent permalink
    January 28, 2008 11:13 am

    As you can see above, I happened to find your post about Neil Gaiman today. That reminded me that I’ve got Stardust in my bookshelf, but haven’t read it yet. Now I’m going to, and then I’m reading your review. Thanks for the reminder :-)

  15. January 29, 2008 11:47 am

    Hi Doctoral Student! I’m glad that you enjoyed Stardust, and thank you for linking to my review. :)

  16. May 5, 2008 4:31 am

    A common review, a common review –


  17. December 16, 2008 2:02 pm

    wow.When i looked at the cover i thought it would be boring.but boy was i wrong!!I love this book and i’m sure lot’s of other people would!

  18. ayunda permalink
    April 30, 2010 6:33 am

    The only Neil Gaiman book I’ve read is Coraline, and I liked it a lot :)


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