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Neil Gaiman's latest isn't as sturdy as his earlier fantasy fiction

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Fragile Things [Buy Now]
By Neil Gaiman
William Morrow
360 pages
$33.95

The title of Neil Gaiman's second collection of short stories came to him, apparently, in a dream. He took it from a sentence he wrote down one morning upon waking: "I think ... that I would rather recollect a life misspent on fragile things than spent avoiding moral debt." Later he wondered, "Just what I had meant by 'fragile things'... there are so many fragile things, after all. People break so easily, and so do dreams and hearts."

This is the difference between critics and writers. I wonder instead what he meant by the word "misspent." People who spend their lives caring for fragile things rarely accumulate much "moral debt." So whatever the subject of this sentence is doing to the fragile things, one has to guess it's not altogether innocent. Such is the creepy, cryptic world of Neil Gaiman, and the reason why I keep going back, even when I know what I'm usually going to find: impressive, entertaining, diverting fantasy fiction, but fantasy fiction nonetheless, and all the things that end up bugging me about fantasy fiction. Life, if you have a clear enough view of it, is strange enough — why complicate things with ghouls, gods, and aliens?

But then there's "Coraline," Gaiman's novella for younger readers, published a few years ago and arguably his one true literary masterpiece. It's a testament to what Gaiman can do when he condenses his creative energy.

Compare that, however, with "The Monarch of the Glen," a novella included in Fragile Things, and one gets the sense that Gaiman is now in a more scattered stage of his career. This long story resurrects Shadow, a character from his first mega-selling novel, American Gods, and puts him together with some modernized Beowulf characters. (It's worth noting that Gaiman has just finished working on a script for a film version of Beowulf, staring Angelina Jolie, slated for release early next year.) There's little new here. It's readable, but it feels like something not interesting enough to become a novel, not strong enough for Angelina Jolie, and too long for magazine publication. So it got tossed in here with a bunch of other stuff from the dark, no doubt very crowded, closets chez Gaiman.

This is not to say that Fragile Things isn't worth reading. Gaiman writes beautifully, and one of his average toss-offs is probably more readable than the average fantasy writer's best effort. Even his failures offer insight into his creative process. His introduction offers a full paragraph on the origin and development of each story. Since his website offers an ongoing blog on the development of whatever he's working on, however, it's not like we're ever going to have to worry about a lack of information on Gaiman's process.

As he points out (perhaps one time too many) in his introduction, some of these are award winners. "A Study in Emerald," a reworked mobius strip of a tale about Sherlock Holmes, won a well-deserved Hugo award in 2004. "Forbidden Brides of the Faceless Slaves in the Secret House of the Night of Dread Desire" won, arguably, a not-so-well-deserved Locus Award in 2005. Gaiman muses over the mystery of why this short story, written when he was 22, was rejected by more than one editor early in his career, and why now it was included in several "best of the year" anthologies. No need to resurrect Sherlock Holmes — one only need consider the possibility that Gaiman's name on any anthology is likely to boost sales no matter how embarrassing or juvenile the work.

In the end, this is a book for fantasy fans, a book that will probably both delight and disappoint them. But it's safe to say that Neil Gaiman will not be going into debt any time soon, whether or not the thing misspent on Fragile Things turns out to be your money.

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