13 September, 2007

Neil Gaiman

Sometime around the spring of last year, I was browsing in Barnes & Noble at the Mall of America in Minneapolis (on a business trip) and happened across an interesting looking book entitled Good Omens: The Nice and Accurate Prophecies of Agnes Nutter, Witch by Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett. Now, I'd never heard of Neil Gaiman, but Terry Pratchett I knew quite well as the author of the hilarious Discworld series (fantasy novels set on a flat planet which moves through space on the back of a giant turtle; rather in the style of Douglas Adams). I almost bought the book at the time, but it was only available in hardback and I didn't feel like carrying it all the way back to North Carolina.

Some months later, I was in the Barnes & Noble here in Greensboro and spotted the book again. Still only in hardback, but what the hell...I bought it. I am so glad that I did.

The book is delightful: it's the end times, when the Antichrist will come forth, gather his armies and initiate Armageddon, the final battle which will destroy the world. Except...well, there are these two guys, one an angel the other a demon, who kind of like the world. They've become addicted to its creature comforts and pleasures and decide to join forces in an attempt to thwart the Creator and put a stop to His plans to end the world. In this they are opposed by the marshalled forces of Heaven AND Hell and aided (often unwittingly) by the last witchhunter and a witch who find themselves thrown together in one of the most unlikely pairings. The book is filled with Pratchett's dry and irreverent humor and Gaiman's prodigious literary erudition and style. So, if you enjoy fantasy, and/or humorous takes on fantasy and religious themes, you will probably find Good Omens a Good Read.

More importantly, this book introduced me to the work of British author Neil Gaiman, who has now become one of my favorite contemporary writers.

Some time after this, again at the Mall of America B&N, I happened across another Gaiman book, this one titled American Gods. This title was available in paperback, so I purchased it and read it during my trip and on the return flight. As with Good Omens, American Gods is an incredible work of fantasy. Part of my enjoyment in reading the book was in trying to figure out exactly what was going on, so I don't want to give too much away, so let's say that the context of Gaiman's book is mythology come to life and the struggle between old and new traditions in the New World. True to the title, most of the characters are gods and the action of the novel swirls around their efforts to survive in a world where belief in them is dwindling. It's an incredible work of depth and erudition (who knew there were so many different deities in the various cultural traditions of immigrants?) paired with humor, a well-paced story line, and wordsmithing that would make Bradbury weep. I can't say enough good things about this book, or Gaiman's other work utilizing the same construct: Anansi Boys. Both are wonderful stories, but even more, wonderful novels.

I've found myself haunting the local Barnes & Noble, sweeping up every Gaiman work on which I can lay my hands: Neverwhere, which was made into a BBC TV series, follows the adventures of a man whose compassionate rescue of a young woman he finds wounded in a dark alley throws him unsuspectingly into a shadow world underneath London and into the middle of a war between good and evil. Stardust, recently released as a movie here in the US, follows a young man's quest to obtain a fallen star for the girl he loves. Unfortunately, the star has fallen into Faerie and on his quest to obtain it, the hero must face madmen, pirates, and witches. Gaiman is also the acclaimed author of Sandman, a series of graphic novels dealing with fantasy themes (I've not read these, but they're on my list!) that have the distinct honor of being the only comic books awarded the World Fantasy Award.

Gaiman is also the author of two collections of short stories, Fragile Things and Smoke and Mirrors. Two of these stories, Snow Glass Apples (a darkly imaginative re-telling of Snow White...from the "wicked" Step-Mother's point of view) and Murder Mysteries (a sort of "film noir" story of the first crime: a murder committed in heaven and investigated by an angel) were dramatized by The Sci-Fi Channel's Seeing Ear Theater and can be heard at the links above.

I could go on and on and these are but a few of Gaiman's oeuvre (you can find complete information at his website). In my opinion, Gaiman is one of the best fantasy writers and storytellers alive today. Although of a very different character, I would say that his work compares favorably with the great literary fantasists Tolkien & Lewis. At the same time, the manner in which he uses the mundane to represent or illuminate the fantastic, the wonderful sense of humor (both light and dark), and his masterful and even poetic grasp of the English language combine to make his work both unique and completely enjoyable.

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