Book Review: ‘Smoke and Mirrors: Short Fictions and Illusions’ by Neil Gaiman

This summer I’ve decided to delve into the writings of Neil Gaiman. He’s one of those writers that feel like a crime for not reading  at least once in your life. This summer, I’ve pinned down nine works of Gaiman’s to read, and if I’m feeling lucky, I might explore Sandman, his series of fantastic comics from Vertigo. The last summer series I tried to do turned out to be a failure; my foray into sharks, a life long obsession, ended after one book. But now, as a writer, I’m a sponge. I try to read at least one book a week, and if I can stay focused, I’ll reach the end of my journey by the conclusion of summer.

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I’ve begun my Neil Gaiman experience based upon Erin Morgenstern’s advice in Book Riot’s first volume of Start Here; the shorts. Smoke and Mirrors is Gaiman’s first series of short stories, published in 1998. This collection runs the gambit of short fiction and poetry in varying genres, including science-fiction (“Changes”), fantasy (“Chivalry,” “Murder Mysteries”), horror (“The Price,” “Don’t Ask Jack”) contemporary (“The Goldfish Pool and Other Stories,” “One Life, Furnished in Early Moorcock”), and even fairy tales (“Troll Bridge,” “The Sea Change”). Gaiman’s writing style here is very wispy, almost like you’re staring at a mirage, wondering what to make of them and pondering their realism. In every single one of these pieces, he puts on his best magician’s cape and dazzles the reader into believing every one of his lies. And he does it quite beautifully.

This collection is not perfect, however, but its triumphs reach far enough to forgive any fiction here that falters. A common theme that runs through these stories is sexuality. Gaiman is not bashful about that and to his credit; the most sexual tale, “Tastings,” ends in psychic body fluids. You’ve never seen prognostication on display like this before. Gaiman never makes it seem unnatural or make the reader at all uncomfortable. He writes sexual encounters as a normal part of life, more normal than I’ve ever read from an author.

The poetry in this collection can be a bit hit or miss, especially if you’re not a regular to the style. “Virus” has a great heart even if it is a bit heavy at times. “The White Road” and “Queen of Knives” are great tales, but at times were lost on me. Perhaps it was just the way they were written, but I couldn’t keep focused reading them. That is more a failure of the reader than of the author. The two greatest in this collection are “The Sea Change” and “Vampire Sestina.” The first deals with a sailor’s encounter with a mermaid, while the second, vampires. These two are written in such a way that I didn’t want them to end, I wanted to explore those worlds more.

The stories that do fall short, which are short in number, do so because they feel almost too real, or grossly unexplored. “Only the End of the World Again” is a foray into werewolves that falls kind of flat. “‘When We Went to See the End of the World’ by Dawnie Morninside, age 11 1/4” is a beautiful painting, but is drastically short for a story, too short.

I emerged from my foray into the mind of a modern genius hooked. Gaiman’s story hooks are brilliant. In each one of these stories, there are ideas that, even if you don’t love the story, are a lot to marvel at. These stories read like spells that actually work, that leave you mesmerized, and will pull the wool right over your eyes. It’s all a magic trick, and Gaiman is a well learned illusionist. You don’t need to love a trick just to enjoy it though, pull up a chair and dive in, you’re guaranteed to find many things that you like.

Five Favorite Shorts

5. “Looking for the Girl”

This may be a guys pick, but I know exactly how the protagonist feels in this story. You lay eyes on someone, there is something more to them, and you’d do anything just to talk to them or touch them; that they may not be real.

4. “Chivalry”

A witty and moving story about a woman who buys the Holy Grail at a thrift shop, and the knight that needs it to end his quest. Before Macklemore and Ryan Lewis stepped foot in the thrift shop, it was Gaiman.

3. “The Price”

This is one of the sweetest stories I’ve read. A battle between good and evil reflects the story Gaiman tucks in the intro. There may be a tear or two.

2. “We Can Get Them For You Wholesale”

A hilarious story about a man who may just end the world to get back at a cheating girlfriend. Sometimes you just can’t pass up a good deal.

1. “Murder Mysteries”

This is the kind of story that you want to punch Neil Gaiman in the face for writing because it’s so good. Heaven’s first transgression, at the beginning of it all. Guest starring Lucifer as well.

3 comments

  1. I have no idea what you plan on reading next… but a few pieces of advice from me, a self-claiming Neil Gaiman MANIAC.

    1. Read Neverwhere next. It is one of the first… if not THE first full length novel he put out… based on a BBC miniseries of the same name that he also wrote. It still holds up as one of his most imaginative and strongest pieces to this day. Best. Ending. EVER.

    2. Read Coraline after that. If you’ve already seen the movie, FORGET IT. The book is a masterpiece.

    3. Then in no particular order, American Gods, Graveyard Book, and Stardust. Read those three and then anything else you like after that. Fragile Things and Anansi Boys fall near the bottom of my list but I still like them. Good Omens with Terry Pratchett was cute and a good read, but not one of m favorites either. Odd and the Frost Giants was fun but felt a bit… fluffy.

    4. DO check out Sandman at some point, but start with VOLUME 2!!! Everyone makes the mistake of starting with Preludes and Nocturnes and then never makes it past that point. Start with “The Doll’s House”, move FORWARD from there, and then sometime (anytime really, but I would recommend after “A Game of You” at least) before you Read the Kindly Ones go back to Volume 1. I really cannot stress this enough. You’ll be so in love with the stories at this point that you will easily look past the stuff that makes the first volume a hard read for new readers. You’ll see the whole series isn’t really that linear anyway. IT WON’T SPOIL ANYTHING I PROMISE!!! You won’t feel like you’re missing anything. Just know that Morpheus has just reclaimed his kingdom and has been away for a while. That’s all you really need to know. I would not tackle the Dream Hunters or Endless Nights until after you’ve read the rest of the series either way. They came out later anyway. And even though it is not strictly Gaiman, the Sandman: Book of Dreams is a short story collection with stories by other authors with characters who crop up all throughout the series. Like all anthologies it has it highs and lows.

    There. I’ve had my say. Of course, feel free to dismiss or follow any of the preceding advice as you see fit. All I can say is that I am jealous of you and excited for you, discovering Neil Gaiman for the first time…

    • The article was written by Rob, but here’s Kevin for the shocking admission. I have barely read any Neil. Even worse, he’s my wife’s favorite. She has read damn near everything from him. The only gap is Sandman, and that’s just because I haven’t bought them all yet. I did read Smoke and Mirrors which was incredible. I know I’d love everything from him I just need to sit down and do it one of these days.

    • My plan is to hit Coraline first then Neverwhere; Stardust, The Graveyard Book, Good Omens, Fragile Things, American Gods, and Anansi Boys. Will put off Sandman till last, mostly to try and get as many of the volumes I don’t have.

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