Thursday, April 6, 2017

Review: The Sandman, Vol. 6: Fables and Reflections

The Sandman, Vol. 6: Fables and Reflections The Sandman, Vol. 6: Fables and Reflections by Neil Gaiman
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

If this were the only Sandman volume I’d read, I’d probably think of it as a four-star work. Since I’ve seen how excellent this series can be (in A Game of You) and I’ve seen its initial – very different – premises all the way back to Preludes and Nocturnes, I find it a bit wanting. When Gaiman’s exploring the myths he’s created – as opposed to refitting myths and fables from other sources – there’s a naked brilliance to his work. While he sometimes has interesting commentary, much of this feels like showing off.

There’s a clear formula here: find an incident or character from history, whether the French Revolution or Marco Polo, and retell it in such a way that Morpheus and his dreams play a crucial part. It’s one story after another, generally well written (though often drawn in uninspired fashion) but it comes to feel as if we are getting material from Mr. Gaiman’s file folder of obscure stories (or familiar stories made obscure), as if he’s plucked out whatever struck his fancy for that issue rather than sat down to further the story he began himself.

By this point in the series we have a Morpheus who is more or less all-powerful. I don’t mind that; in fact I like it very much except for the fact that this began as a very different premise. The Morpheus we met at first was a god who’d been humbled by a human, and then he was a weakened figure who had to set out to recover his full power. This Morpheus suffers no threat, has no real conflict to concern himself with. He becomes almost a Rod Serling of the obscure, the character linking an anthology series. Again, that’s not a bad thing in itself, but it’s a change from the implicit promise of the series’ beginning.

Gaiman started telling one kind of story and then began to tell another. I understand that half these stories appeared before and half after A Game of You, but that just adds to my sense that, clever as most of these are, they’re filler for the larger stories Gaiman can sometimes tell.

On the plus side, the two strongest stories here are probably the last two, “Parliament of Rooks” and “Ramadan.” In the first of those, an overactive toddler with a mother pushed to her limits, falls into dream and wanders into Morpheus’s castle. While I am irritated to find the requisitioned Cain and Abel, squabbling brothers who owe as much to Krazy Kat as Genesis, I love the rest of this. Almost nothing happens beyond a square off of story-telling, but it’s haunting and beautiful to see the toddler explore the new world he’s tumbled into. It feels like an updated Little Nemo, but it also feels all Gaiman.

The last story involves more of the Morpheus involving himself in history trope that I tend to find irritating, but it works here. The great Sultan Haroun al-Raschid rules over a Baghdad which is the wonder not just of its time but of all time. It is a city so full of magic and art that even Haroun can barely take it all in. It’s so wondrous, so self-evidently the apex of civilization, that he becomes saddened at the thought that it will one day fade. Aware of all that, he summons Morpheus and makes a deal: He will give his city to the dream lord so that it will exist in a dimension that human dreamers can intermittently return to forever. As with the best of these Sandman stories, it reaches a poetry that’s rare not just in this genre but in any.

I’m moving on with the series, and volume 7 is already lined up. If this is the worst it gets, then it’s going to worth reading straight on through to the end. I just hope Gaiman works more to tell extended stories drawing on his own best creations.

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