Tag Archives: Neil Gaiman

The Sandman 7: Brief Lives – The Nuances of Metafiction

Brief Lives (The Sandman, #7)Brief Lives by Neil Gaiman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

<spoiler alert>

This is a fairly straightforward story in an otherwise complex, meandering narrative, probably because this is the turning point for the larger Sandman story leading into its big climax.

It starts by reminding the reader of a sacred, severed head on a desolate Greek island, that has a connection to the Endless family. Leaving the reader with that thought, the story moves on to the thus far neglected character of Delirium, the youngest, most tragic of the Endless. Delirium is in disrepair,  floating bewildered in chaotic surroundings and once mistaking a stranger for her sister Death. Luckily she is rescued (or is that the bystanders who’re rescued?) from her meltdown, by Desire frequenting the same BDSM-themed private party. That Desire’s arena slightly overlaps with Delirium in a place such as this, is the first of many meta-fiction flourishes in this book.

Delirium breaks down (literally into colourful butterflies) before confessing that she misses her brother Destruction. But as neither Desire nor its twin Despair support her quest, Delirium reluctantly goes in search of Dream. Dream is in the throes of heartbreak when Delirium reaches him (another meta-fiction touch). This chapter where the two siblings talk is one of the sweetest, most heart-wrenching pieces in the entire Sandman arc. Even Dream’s forbidding, aloof aura is melted by Delirium’s touching vulnerability and he agrees to aid her on her quest.

The story follows their adventures as they hunt down Destruction’s old friends to seek him out. Every lead runs dry or dies mysteriously. The most wonderful of these stories is their meeting with Ishthar, a strip-club dancer with a history that even a colleague with a degree in Women’s Studies, doesn’t recognize. I loved this story for two ideas that it brought to fore – the origin (and death) of gods and that Love and Destruction are soulmates.

Dream returns from his quest empty-handed and much changed by its experiences. A sibling relationship has been rekindled, a missing sibling found and lost again, a love laid to rest and finally, a prophesy sought and paid for, with dire consequences. As Despair puts it, “You cannot seek Destruction and return unscathed.”

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The Sandman 6: Fables & Reflections – Neil Gaiman

Fables and Reflections (The Sandman, #6)Fables and Reflections by Neil Gaiman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

<spoiler alert>

This is by far, my favorite of all the Sandman books. After the letdown of Book 5: A Game of You, this one fully rewarded me for staying loyal to the Dream arc.

A collection of 8 short stories, Fables & Reflections delights with every single tale. First, in ‘Fear of Falling’ we come up against the all-too-familiar fear of failure and discover where it stems from.

‘Three Septembers and a January’ once again shows us the redeeming qualities of Dream as he snatches a defeated man at his lowest low right from the clutches of Despair with a dream that carries him well past his death.

‘Thermidor’ hints at darker plots but it covers the not-lacking-in-intrigue tale of Johanna Constantine (briefly encountered in ‘Men of Good Fortune’ in Book 2: The Doll’s House).

‘The Hunt’ is another sweet, haunting story recounted as a tale told by an old man to his grand-daughter. This one has the flavour of old folk tales, with magic, fairytale drama with a life lesson at the end.

‘August’ delves deep into an untold secret of Emperor Augustus and the living nightmare that defined his life. This one also uses the narrative style of the above, switching between past and present, but in the style of a memoir rather than folktale.

‘Soft Places’ explores an aspect of the dreaming, the realm of the Sandman through the incredible experience of a young man, later revealed to be the explorer Marco Polo. We also briefly encounter the charming Fiddler’s Green (from Book 2: The Doll’s House).

‘Orpheus’ reveals some part of the mystery of the decapacitated, singing head from ‘Thermidor’. This story is not new to anyone familiar to Greek mythology but what’s novel is it’s anchoring within the universe of the Endless, positioning the doomed lover-poet as Dream’s son by Calliope (from Book 3: Dream Country).

In ‘The Parliament of Rooks’ we meet several characters who briefly appeared in earlier stories. Daniel, the boy born in dreams to Lyta and now-dead Hector Hall (Book 2: The Doll’s House), Cain and Abel (Book 1: Preludes & Nocturnes) join Eve and Matthew the raven for a story-telling session. This tale-within-tale format gives us the truth behind the origin story and what the rooks are really doing together.

And finally ‘Ramadan’ is a beautifully illustrated story of the city of Haroun Al Raschid, so tender that it wrenches your heart. This one is my favorite of all the stories in this book.

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The Sandman 5: A Game of You – Neil Gaiman

The Sandman 5: A Game Of You (Sandman Collected Library)The Sandman 5: A Game Of You by Neil Gaiman
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

<spoiler alert>

This is the first long-form Sandman story that doesn’t break in between for a short, breather tale. It’s a different style from Book 2: The Doll’s House which was probably the last one that was so dark and intense.

A Game of You is a connecting story from the first half to the second half of the Sandman arc. At another, more in-your-face level, it’s a fantasy tale, set in the mind of Barbie (whom we first met in Book 2: The Doll’s House). A mythical land, magical creatures and a mysterious villian called the cuckoo populate this tale. The bizarre side of this tale comes from dreams seeping into the real world with the neighboring geek-girl turning out to be a crusading witch, the loser next door as a spooky agent of the enemy and everyone else just a blind follower in the melee.

It’s hard to explain why this book falls on the low for me while the other Sandman books vie for top billings. I’m not a huge fantasy fan and in the visual/textual format, it feels too much like a kid cartoon. The story though, is gristly enough to make me feel slightly sick. To top it all, the hard gritty narrative is not even tempered with a shorter, lighter tale as with the other stories.

I didn’t like this book much and on my most of my re-reads of Sandman, I prefer to skip over this tale. Still, it is a part of the Sandman arc and contributes in its own way to it. Characterisation, a strong feature of the Sandman saga, continues here in the form of Thessaly(who got her own standalone story in ‘Thessaly: Witch for Hire‘) and the lesbian couple, Hazel & Foxglove/Donna (who also featured in another breakout story, the very sweet ‘Death: The Time of your life‘).

Read this one, if only because it provides continuity to the next Sandman episode and since it leads the reader into two other great books.

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The Sandman 4: Season of Mists – Neil Gaiman


Season of Mists
by Neil Gaiman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

<spoiler alert>

The fourth Sandman book is where you get to meet the entire Endless family in one place – or at least the still active ones. Destiny, the eldest, calls for a family conclave. Desire needles Dream about sentencing Nada (from Book 2: The Doll’s House) to hell for declining his proposal. Death, while attempting to pacify Dream, concedes that he has indeed been unfair to Nada. Stung by this, Dream resolves to go to Hell to bring Nada back.

Dream prepares for his destruction in Hell, anticipating that Lucifer would not have forgiven him for the Choronzon episode (from ‘A Hope in Hell’-Book 1:Preludes & Nocturnes). To his surprise, he finds Hell’s gates open to him and furthermore, Lucifer clearing out Hell. The Devil abdicates his role, locks up Hell and hands over to Dream. Left in charge of the most prized real estate in the psychic world, Dream finds himself being alternated propositioned and threatened by the various factions wanting possession.

Once again, a Sandman story performs a double-act with a narrative that entertains and at a meta level, leaves us with a profound idea – In carrying a grudge, we condemn our loved ones and also ourselves to hell. We aren’t condemned to hell; we condemn ourselves to it. The Devil may be no more than a hapless, twisted aspect of ourselves, struggling from patterns and ultimately falling into it again.

As with the second book, this gritty narrative is interspersed with the spooky but oddly cheerful tale of Charles Rowling, a schoolboy murdered in a bizarre boarding school ritual. The story also ties in with the larger theme of hell.

“I think Hell’s something you carry around with you. Not somewhere you go.”

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The Sandman 3: Dream Country – Neil Gaiman


Dream Country
by Neil Gaiman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

<spoiler alert>

The third Sandman novel is a collection of 4 short stories – 3 featuring Dream and 1 with Death.

‘Calliope’ tells of an imprisoned woman who just happens to be one of the Muses. Her captors are writers who abuse her for their own purposes. The story offers an uncomplimentary look into the writer’s mind and to our world today where ideas and knowledge, instead of being venerated, are stolen and traded like commodities.

‘A Dream of a thousand cats’ offers an alternate history of our world and also the notion that it isn’t just human beings that dream. Any life form, any being that can think, can imagine, can dream. And all of these dreams are the creation and under the protection of the Dream Lord.

‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’ shows us how the Shakespearan original might have come to be. As with the first story, this one too offers a rather uncomplimentary look at a writer’s life, even one as renowned as The Bard. Incidentally, this story takes off from a chance encounter between Dream & Shakespeare in the story ‘Men of Good Fortune’ from Book 2: The Doll’s House.

‘Facade’ is a tragicomic story of Element Woman, a wasted superheroine who cannot die. This story alone carries a sweet ending.

On one level, each story , small anecdotes and larger narrative alike, wows you with its lines, the sheer mind-bendiness of the concept and the powerful characters. At another level, you start to notice that wherever they involve Dream, the stories are dark, brooding, often tragic. Death, on the other hand, brings a sense of clarity, even cheer into the lives of the characters she encounters. Death is possibly the second most popular character in the Dream universe and her depiction as a cheerful, goth-dressing, young girl is one of the many things that sets The Sandman series apart.

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The Sandman 2: The Doll’s House – Neil Gaiman

The Sandman, Vol. 2: The Doll’s House by Neil Gaiman
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

<spoiler alert>

The second book in the Sandman series begins with an insight into the Dream Lord’s troubled love life. From the tale of Nada, we are introduced to Desire, who is possibly the second most intriguing character in this entire universe, after Dream. Desire is one of the younger Endless siblings, after Destiny, Death & Dream. Desire is both male and female, whimsical, cruel and is described in the following manner:

“Is there something you crave?

Something sexual? Something precious? Someone special? Anything?
Then you have felt it. It’s there – in the longing, in the lust, the breath of Desire, the caress of the threshold.”

The story then abruptly moves on to The Walker family, scattered across the globe and finding each other in a series of unbearably dramatic circumstances. The eldest Walker is Unity Kincaid (One of the ‘sleep sickness’ victims from the first book), the youngest is harbouring demons in his head that are actually dreams gone rogue from their realm, during the Sandman’s imprisonment. The narrative moves on to a serial killers’ convention, an abused 11-year-old boy and the weird story playing out in his head with an alternate Sandman. Right through the middle of the book, the narrative is interrupted by a shorter Dream story, “Men of Good Fortune” which talks about an unusual friendship. This back-and-forth style, interspersed with anecdotes and peppered with references to history, fantasy, religion and folklore, sets the tone for how the Dream narrative unfolds across the remaining books too – just like regular dreams.

I loved “Men of Good Fortune” for its brilliant lines (a regular Sandman characteristic) but also because it provided respite from the harsh grittiness of the Walker story. Rose Walker is an important character in the larger narrative and this sequence of events, necessary for the story as it goes on. But still, it is a brutal tale and moments of sweetness provided by these shorter stories are what keep it palatable for us.

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The Sandman 1: Preludes & Nocturnes – Neil Gaiman

The Sandman, Vol. 1: Preludes and NocturnesThe Sandman, Vol. 1: Preludes and Nocturnes by Neil Gaiman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

<spoiler alert>

The first book of The Sandman series starts with the magical (and mistaken) imprisonment of the Sandman, Lord of the dream realm, also variously known as Dream, Morpheus, Oneiros, Kai’ckul and many other names. The book doesn’t give you a minute to absorb the magnitude of this idea at all but drops you right into a story with dramatic flourishes, spanning over 70 years, multiple realms and various characters from fiction, fantasy & folklore.

The Sandman is captured by a bunch of wizards hoping to trap Death instead. In a quandary over their powerful prisoner, they decide to keep him enchained. The effect of this is felt all over the world with people falling into a ‘sleep sickness’. After Dream manages to escape, he goes in search of his tools – his helmet, a ruby and his pouch of dream sand. Along the way, he encounters the destruction caused to his own realm, the escape of several wayward dream figures. He also meets John Constantine (another DC comics character), duels with a demon in Lucifer’s Hell and battles with a psychotic killer called Doctor Dee, for his ruby.

The artwork is gristly and rough-edged, presumably to convey the acute experiences of Dream in this tale. It also has an odd superhero comic feel to it, which disappears later in the series (except for an occasional resurfacing here and there in a story).

Perhaps because of the powerful narrative and strong characters, you never stop to wonder what it all means till much later, but just go along with Dream’s adventures as you would any other character. But lines like “I am hope” (from ‘A Hope in Hell’) stay with you long after the page has been turned.

If you’re not a comic book or superhero fan, don’t let the nuances of these put you off Sandman. The story rises above these genres and really grows in the later books. This is definitely one of the masterpieces of our generation.

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Sandman: Endless Nights – Neil Gaiman – A Collector’s Copy

The Sandman: Endless NightsThe Sandman: Endless Nights by Neil Gaiman
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This standalone book could well serve as an introduction to the Sandman universe or simply be a collector’s piece. Each story tells about one of the seven Endless siblings – Death, Dream, Destruction, Desire, Despair and Delirium.

Some, like the ones on Death, Desire & Destruction feature them as characters appearing for a very short while in the tales. This is the style of several of the stories in the main Sandman books. The Dream chapter has an important plot turn in the larger Sandman narrative. Despair and Delirium, as perhaps befits their characters have portraitures that convey the ideas they stand for, more through visuals than stories. Destiny alone, has a narrative that is a simple, factual (if somewhat poetic) introduction to the character.

Each story has been illustrated by a different artist and the rendering and narrative style stays true to the tone of the character that the story describes.

My favorite story of all was ‘What I have tasted of Desire’. Milo Manara’s artwork depicts blatant innuendo in each panel, in keeping with the personality of Desire. The story contains my favorite Sandman lines of all: “Most people want things like a candle-flame, flickering, shifting. You, on the other hand, want like a forest fire.”

This is a book I’d give as a gift and treasure my own copy, never to be shared.

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I Wear: Desire For A Day

Comic Con Mumbai 2011, the first of its kind in the city, took place in third week of October. I have much to thank the beautiful @Phyrodite for, not the least of which was, telling me about it and then helping me construct a look for it (more later).

The event wasn’t promoted as well as I would have hoped, given the burgeoning popularity of the visual/text medium (I’ll refrain from calling them either ‘comics’ or ‘graphic novels’ since each seems to incite overstrong responses). Still, it was exciting to think of being able to attend an event that focused solely on this genre and its fans.

That it took place at the undeniably inaccessible World Trade Center, Nariman Point may have been a point lost in its favour. Still the numbers did turn out, horrible public transport and weather notwithstanding. What was slightly disappointing was the size of the actual event. My first pang of disappointment struck when I saw the ubiquitous white-and-blue temporary stalls everywhere. These have become synonymous with boring expos, meets on real estate, technology and other such stuff. I really had expected something more…I don’t know…crazy, quirky, wild, colourful? The stalls were all run by publishers, writers or occasionally an unrelated merchandiser (posters, fridge magnets, music-themed tee-shirts).

I was delighted to find India Book House had a stall there. The people who’ve delighted every Indian child with Tinkle and Amar Chitra Katha, had a large stall selling their most popular comics. The covers are now glossy though the print quality suffers in some of these cases. Also, ACK digests are now hardbound editions. As a show of support (and because they were offering a 20% discount!), I picked up two Tinkle digests and two  ACK collections (“Tamil Stories” and “Jataka Tales”). I also spotted fellow NovelRacers, Vijayendra Mohanty, there to promote his comic series, Ravanayan (which the boy promptly bought).

There was a costume competition in the evening but then again, I didn’t really see enough of dressed-up people to really make this a success. Most of the visitors were men/overgrown teenboys sporting the now-so-common superhero teeshirts. Among the costumes I did spot were a Luna Lovegood (Harry Potter really is not a graphic novel or comic!), Fred Flintstone (Isn’t that a cartoon, not comic?), two Darth Vaders (I guess Star Warsmania is a given in any comic convention) and the only other graphic novel character – Rorschach (from Alan Moore’s Watchmen). Which brings me to the next part of this post. What did I go as?

I’ve had my eye on a certain Neil Gaiman character for a long time and just hoping for a Halloween party or costume ball of some sort to don the look. Unfortunately for me, @Phyrodite beat me to it! Looking back, I know she made a far better Death than I would have. What else could I pull up at the spur of the moment? I didn’t want to go as a superheroine, given my limited exposure to these only notes teenboy-fantasy-skimpy-costumes. I didn’t want to carry off a character I didn’t know well and I did want to honour one of my favorite stories of all time – the Sandman. So I picked another character, one not as obvious but very powerful in his/her own way. There’s a clue in that last sentence, Sandman-lovers. This is what I took my brief from (Book 4: Season Of Mists):

“Desire smells, almost subliminally of summer peaches, and casts two shadows: one black and sharp-edged, the other translucent and forever wavering, like heat haze.

Desire smiles in brief flashes, like sunlight glinting from a knife-edge. And there is much else that is knife-like about Desire.

Never a possession, always the possessor, with skin as pale as smoke, and eyes tawny and sharp as yellow wine: Desire is everything you have ever wanted. Whoever you are> Whatever you are.

Everything.

The most striking thing about Desire’s look is that it isn’t an exact half-and-half male/female depiction, but a seamless blend of the two that somehow is both striking and attractive. I’d been meaning to get a haircut anyway and with this, I decided to just go wild and carried the comic with me to the hairdresser. Following a drawn image proved to be too difficult so instead, I explained the character to her. I think she really hit the nail on the head with this haircut!

It was too hot for a suit so I decided to pick the look Desire sports in Chapter 5 of ‘Brief Lives’, when he/she rescues Tiffany, the exotic dancer from the apocalyptic last dance of Ishthar. A white cotton shirt that I’d bought just the previous week was begging to be worn, that’s how cool and starched it was. I discarded my formal trousers in favour of skinny jeans to make the look more ‘spicy’ than staid. These jeans were too tight for me a few months back but happily for me, slip on like second skin now. Second skin I say, because that’s how tight they are. I think they made for a good contrast with the prim cotton shirt. Over this, I slung a black cordruoy jacket, hanging off one shoulder in the classic Desire pose. I think all I was missing was a lit cigarette but I don’t smoke so I gave that a miss.

Footwear would have to be my strappy black sandals since the haircut and shirt made for such a boyish look. It’s the accessories that I was really proud of, at the end. First of all, a red satin pouch that I got as a free makeup kit from Maybelline, doubled up as a waist pouch. The colour, the fabric, combined with the steel chain around my waist added the kinky touch to Desire.

A heart-shaped rose quartz pendant from Magick slipped into one of my ear hoops and stood out really well against the black jacket. A silver charm bracelet with a heart was on my right wrist. And finally, at the end of another steel chain (matching the one around my waist), I attached an old pendant from my college days, that depicts a boy and girl kissing. I wound this around my wrist and swung it around to showcase my character’s belief that human beings are but objects of Desire.

And finally, the most important artefact of an Endless sibling – the sigil. My glass heart pendant was a gift from @Phyrodite. And here’s when Death and Desire walked together!

* The photographs are courtesy Rehab and Valerie, who couldn’t have been more patient as I demanded one more angle, one more frame, one more photograph!

I Wear:

  • White cotton shirt with embroidered yoke: Cotton World, Rs.750
  • Sparkly jeans, skin fit: Diva, Levis, ~Rs.1500
  • Black strappy sandals: Catwalk
  • Black cordruoy jacket: Shoppers Stop
  • Red satin pouch with steel chain: Make-up kit from Maybelline
  • Large glass heart pendant on black chain: Street stall, Hill Road, Bandra, Rs.150
  • Small rose quartz heart pendant worn on ear hoop: Magick, Bandra, Rs.150
  • Steel boy-and-girl-kiss pendant: Malhar, St.Xaviers’ college circa 1997 (!), ~Rs.200
  • Haircut: Enriche, a L’Oreal salon, ~Rs.800

* Cross-posted to Divadom.

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