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Book review: <i>Fragile Things</i> by Neil Gaiman

If this was a night out, it would be an invitation to a party full of people with better clothes and more interesting jobs than yours, who, after your initial awkwardness dissolves, turns out to be great fun and highly accepting, and even if you still can’t really figure out what you’re doing there you have some great fun, get high, and even start to suspect that in a different life you could be even cooler than they are.


A nice, minimalist, bi-colour thing with a green leaf over the white cover, plus some silver text consistent with his last book.

The plot

A bunch of short stories, a couple of poems and a little American Gods epilogue/novella to round it off.

The good

Well, it opens the book so I’ll put it in first: an introduction to each of the stories. As a concept, it’s exactly like most of the stories—verges on pretension, or at least self-indulgence and seems to give too much weight to Gaiman’s strengths as a writer... until you realise once again that Gaiman knows exactly how much weight his stories can support, and the faith he holds in them is even, if you’re in the mood, endearing. I cut my fiction teeth on short stories and introductions are a great idea—they contextualise the random and serve as a palate cleanser before each course. Yes, I know food metaphors suck, shut up.

I’m not sure how much he’d appreciate this observation, but one of Gaiman’s strongest talents is to work within constraints—of his chosen supernatural/mythic genres, yes, but even within the constraints of particular niches of those genres (let’s not forget that Gaiman got famous by turning a lacklustre pantheon of old comic book superheroes into a genre of his own). My favourite stories here are the first, “A Study In Emerald”, which is a combined Lovecraft/Sherlock Holmes story (and effing brilliant, I might add), and the story he wrote for a Matrix anthology before the film had even been released—immediately grasping the potential, if not the approach, which made the film fantastic.

There’s a lot of other good stuff here too, of course—the closing post-script for American Gods is great, and I really enjoyed a story where the Seasons (personified) meet to tell each other tales; one about a boy and his ghostly companion is also very evocative, and there are real scares for the keen—one or two “true” stories are amongst the creepiest of all.

If you know and love Gaiman’s prose, this is unmissable—I think I enjoyed it more than Smoke & Mirrors (his last shorts collection)—but even to the newcomer there’s a lot to like here.

The bad

Well, inevitably, the faint note of pretension rings behind many of these. It’s not even the right word, exactly, but it’s close. I think the problem is that Gaiman is still not always quite confident enough to let the reader draw themselves into his web, and instead tries to entice them inside with a little too much affected panache. It is when he is at his most effortless that he is best, evoking Douglas Adams and Wodehouse, but when he shows off most noticeably he can be as twee and indulgent as Pratchett or any goth comic book.

Fortunately, the former case outweighs the latter significantly. There are a few dubious poems and a particularly wank-tastic collection of character-sketchy paragraphs intended to accompany a Tori Amos CD.

If this works for you, you’ll forgive him, because his style can be quite sublime—he’s either a natural, or he works a lot harder than he lets on, and either way it’s always worth a read, no matter how initially off-putting he can occasionally be.

What I learnt

That individual story intros should be mandatory for these collections.

In short

Title: Fragile Things
Author: Neil Gaiman
Publisher: William Morrow
ISBN: 0060515228
Year published: 2006
Pages: 400
Genre(s): Short stories

This review was written by Tom Vaughan. Tom has his own website, which contains many other reviews and strips and art and other fun stuff here.

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