There are many approaches to fantasy. Some authors approach the genre with a plan in mind to implement a strict set of rules for their particular brand of magic. They use these restraints to challenge their protagonists in unique ways and then find sly solutions to problems of their own devising. This approach makes for some marvellous stories but the nature of fantasy means it is far from the only method of madness.
Now consider Neil Gaiman’s fantasy. He appears to remove all restrictions from his mind such that, within a Neil Gaiman book, whatever he says can happen, can happen and whatever he says does happen, does happen. There is a freedom to Gaiman’s fantasy that sets him apart from many of his contemporaries but every bizarre world he writes still somehow feels believable.
If you’re unfamiliar with his work, prepare for a quick education. Perhaps you’ve heard of the Amazon Prime shows American Gods or Good Omens. Perhaps you’ve binged all five seasons of Lucifer on Netflix or you remember watching the movies Stardust and Coraline when they first came out many years ago. These (and many more besides) are Gaiman adaptations and, these days, I am never surprised when I find out something else had Gaiman’s involvement. The man seems to have an endless imagination and his output over the past decades has been really rather prolific.
So why mention Gaiman now? Again, there are many reasons: the comic book world of Sandman was recently expanded with new titles featuring characters created by Gaiman himself, his books are constantly being reprinted in beautiful new editions and each TV adaptation of his work seems only to lead to the next major franchise. In essence, in the world of fantasy entertainment, it seems Gaiman is everywhere and, by every standard, deserving of having his work appreciated.
By many heralded as one of the greatest stories ever written for the comic book medium, Sandman is a series that I have recently been reading in strictly rationed amounts so as not to run out too soon. The main series follows Dream of the Endless or, Morpheus, as he is known. He and the other Endless (his siblings, Death, Desire, Delirium, Destiny, Despair and Destruction) are godlike beings who deal with all aspects of the universe, the human and the fantastic. Despite their duties, they still disagree and argue among themselves and face constant challenges to their power but it’s this imperfection in them that makes them so compelling to read about.
From his imprisonment by a group of human cultists, through his rise back to full strength and across many dream worlds in between, Morpheus’ journey is littered with challenges and characters both human and other-worldly. The one constant in this series (or in what I have read so far) is his commitment to his cause. He is the lord of dreams and, from his castle in The Dreaming, he protects sleepers across the universe. As mentioned though, he is not an omnipotent being. He is simply a moral and just ruler who has to deal with the schemes and subterfuge of men and gods, doling out punishment and reward each when they are deserved, and his conflicts are always fascinating to watch unfold.
This series gave birth to many spin offs. Lucifer is likely the most well-known and chronicles the path of Lucifer Morningstar after he abandons his responsibility as ruler of Hell. However, others such as The Books of Magic, about a young British boy discovering the mystical elements in the world and his own potential for power, may be less familiar but are just as entertaining.
In the case of the Sandman series, Gaiman was influential in writing the original series and captivating a wide and diverse audience but now his creation has inspired others to expand on his vision and create a whole universe of stories. If that isn’t an accomplishment for an author then it’s hard to imagine what would be.
One thing that Gaiman seems obsessed with in all of his fiction is the idea of gods and the stories of ancient mythologies and beliefs. In American Gods, beings from all over the globe and all across history are fighting to maintain their influence and their hold over the human mind but they face challenges from the new gods of America. It’s a story which follows a continual spiral into chaos until some clarity finally reveals itself towards the very end but the constant uncertainty makes this a thrilling novel.
The protagonist, Shadow Moon, is near the end of a prison sentence but receives an early release along with some terrible news. He immediately sets off across the country to get back home but meets Mr Wednesday, a strange and insistent man who eventually gets Shadow to agree to act as his bodyguard on a journey across America.
The cast of characters who come and go after these initial events are diverse and unexpected to such an extent that I hardly trusted myself to blink for fear of missing a moment in the words of this book. There is a lot packed into the story and many connections which only reveal themselves as the closing chapters approach. Needless to say though, this is another Gaiman world which feels so close to our own and yet, simultaneously, so far away.
With its eccentric and outrageous characters, constant confusion and twisting plot, American Gods is the epitome of a page turner. You can honestly never be sure what lies around the corner and the surprises along the way make this a wonderful story to discover.
While not a direct sequel to American Gods, Anansi Boys shares its title character with Gaiman’s earlier novel. Anansi is a spider god and all of the stories and songs are his. At his death, his son, Charlie Nancy, finds himself slipping into a world of gods and magic. Charlie was quite satisfied with his unimpressive life in London prior to this but the appearance of his brother, Spider, might mean that a normal life is now forever beyond his reach.
Without quite the same high stakes plot that fuels American Gods, this novel still manages to create an enthralling story of meddling gods and their troublesome children. Charlie Nancy is a sympathetic protagonist who struggles to embrace all the changes that come his way but there is something good in him that reassures the reader that he will find the strength to endure. He is spectacularly unimpressive and far from a typical heroic protagonist but his growth is one of the best things about this novel.
Anansi Boys is also the latest of Gaiman’s books to have been announced for an upcoming TV adaptation so now is the perfect time to pick it up. It’s another great story by Gaiman and features all of the trademark elements that I have come to associate with a Gaiman book.
In a slight change of pace to the rest, Good Omens is a novel jointly written by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett. When you combine the storytelling ability of each, Gaiman’s twists on the everyday events around us and Pratchett’s signature comedic touches, you end up with a hilarious story of the apocalypse, its four horsemen and a misplaced anti-Christ.
The standout elements of Good Omens have to be the two protagonists, Crowley and Aziraphale. This pair, an angel and a demon who have lived on Earth since its creation, have been both good and bad influences on each other and over the years they have formed quite the charming, reluctant friendship. The only thing they undoubtedly agree on is that the apocalypse is no good for anyone despite what their respective head offices believe.
There’s not much more that I can say about this book but just know that it’s chaotic, crazy and wonderful. For something light-hearted which will be a joy to pick up again and again, read Good Omens!
In Neverwhere, there is a darker side to London. Down below the streets and in the magical spaces between the everyday there is another world and Richard is dragged down into it all when he helps a young girl, Door, on the run from a pair of hideous hired killers. At first, all Richard wants to do is help Door and find his way back home but in this wonderful adventure through the familiar locations of London he finds himself wondering where he is more at home.
Neverwhere is a fantastic story of belonging. It features the same fast plot progression of most of Gaiman’s work but there is a great weight of meaning behind it all. It comments on two worlds that live side by side while one is oblivious to the other but the magic it injects into the streets of London makes it fun to read at the same time. This is another which it would be a shame to miss out on and I would not be surprised to see a TV adaptation soon (following the radio adaptation that already exists).
And then there is so much more that I still haven’t gotten around to reading or don’t have enough space to discuss here. Coraline, Stardust, The Ocean at the End of the Lane and Norse Mythology are all books I still want to read but the world is full of stories and they all have to wait their turn.
Hopefully this whistle-stop tour has shown the appeal of Gaiman’s work even if you hadn’t heard of any of these stories before. If nothing else, his books are always an escape and, with Sandman offering horror elements, Good Omens leaning heavily into comedy and everything in between to be found somewhere in his work, Gaiman truly has something to offer for everyone.
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