Sunday, August 28, 2011

Review - The Sandman, Vol. 4: Season of Mists by Neil Gaiman

Short review: Dream sets out to confront Lucifer, but finds the Prince of Hell has resigned and left him with a problem.

Dream was once in love
But condemned her to rot in Hell
Lucifer retires

Full review: In volume four of the Sandman series, Gaiman reaches back and pulls at a thread that he first established back in Preludes and Nocturnes: Dream's less than successful love life, and his less than compassionate nature. Dream is, after all, one of the Endless, and indifferent at best to human concerns. Season of Mists uses as its backdrop one of the largest possible mythological venues possible: Hell. Despite a tale that deals with the rulership of the infernal domain, ultimately the story is one of personal choice and personal redemption.

But Dream is apparently not immune to human emotions and human pettiness. Because once long ago he fell in love with a woman named Nada, and she doesn't reciprocate. Or at least not in the way Dream expects that she will. And Dream's response to being spurned was to cast his lover in to Hell, a fact alluded to in Preludes and Nocturnes and expanded upon later. And so in this volume the Endless Destiny, spurred by a meeting with the Grey Ladies, calls upon his siblings to gather together: Death, Dream, Despair, Desire, and Delirium so they can meet and talk about nothing in particular. And this meeting results in Dream deciding that perhaps condemning his former love to millennia of torment in the depths of Hell was possibly uncalled for and a may have been mite unjust. This determined, Dream sets out to free his condemned lover from Lucifer's grasp, despite Dream having earned the Prince of Hell's animosity  recovering one of the badges of his office in Preludes and Nocturnes.

On his way to Hell, Dream stops off and visits his one friend Hob who we first met in Dream Country. As he is Morpheus, he visits his friend in a dream, and Hob toasts him, with a slightly prophetic toast that gives this volume its name. This meeting blurs the line between dream and reality in a way that unsettles Hob, showing that even a man who has lived for centuries is not so jaded as to be blase when dealing with one of the Endless. Prepared for confrontation, Morpheus enters Hell, but finds it strangely quiet. He does not find Nada. He is instead met by Lucifer who tells the Dreamlord that he has tired of ruling Hell and is closing the place down. Having ejected all the condemned souls and demons from its environs, Lucifer takes Dream to close the last remaining Gates of Hell before asking him to sever his wings, an act that demotes Lucifer from the ranks of angels (or even fallen angels) and terminates his reign as ruler of Hell. But as he travels about Hell ejecting the last few heoldouts who refuse to leave and locking the remaining gates, Lucifer expounds upon theology, absolving himself of responsibility for the sins of mankind, and placing the blame squarely upon humanity's own shoulders. In this, it seems, Gaiman posits a decidedly humanistic vision of the world. And in one scene it seems that Gaiman is making a statement concerning the self-aggrandizement of humanity. Finally, Lucifer gets his revenge on Dream by handing the Key to Hell over to him. Dream, it seems, must choose the next ruler of Hell.

And Lucifer's gift to Dream does not go unnoticed as he is almost immediately beset by numerous suitors hoping to claim the now-vacated real estate. But first Dream speaks with his sister Death. She has little to say concerning his predicament, but she does reveal something of ominous import: the dead are returning to the Earth. And it only takes a second for the reader to realize it is not all the dead. Just those who had formerly been confined to Hell, a situation that certainly does not bode well for the living. Once again, Gaiman demonstrates his mastery of storytelling by delivering information to the reader subtly, and letting the reader put the pieces of the puzzle together rather than spelling everything out. Gaiman trusts his readers to understand subtlety, and as a result, his storytelling is that much more powerful. But soon the gods and powers arrive on Dream's doorstep: Odin recovers Loki from his underground torment and recruits Thor to keep Loki in line, the angels Duma and Remiel journey from the Silver City, and the demons Azael, Merkin, and Chonizon set out hoping to win their home back. They are joined by the Egyptian gods Anubis and Bast, the Japanese god Susano-o-no-Mikoto, Kilderkin the Lord of Order, Shivering Jemmy, a Princess of Chaos, and eventually Cluracan and Nuala of the Faerie Court. And each seeks the key to Hell, and each, it seems, has an offer to make to Dream.

But first the story returns to Earth to tell the story of a single unremarkable boy named Charles Rowland. In the midst of the tales concerning the disposition of Hell amidst the schemes and machinations of angels, gods, and demons, the story of an English schoolboy living a sad and lonely life as the only student left behind in between terms seems trivial and unimportant. But Charles Rowland is tormented by the spirits of the dead who returned from Hell and had nowhere else to go other than return to the boarding school where they taught, worked, or studied. And with nothing better to do, they repeat history, tormenting and killing Rowland just as they tormented and killed one of their own classmates a hundred years earlier. And it is this that drives home the true impact that Lucifer's abdication of his responsibilities has. When the damned are free to walk the Earth, they are free to inflict chaos and misery upon the living. The true cost of Lucifer's petty revenge upon Dream is shown in this seemingly unimportant interlude.

But the action then shifts back to Dream's domain, and the banquet he has offered his guests while he contemplates the disposal of the Key to Hell. And the reader gets treated to a view of the representatives of the various factions rubbing shoulders with one another; a hugely muscled, crude, and drunken Thor sloppily hits on the finicky Egyptian goddess Bast, Prince Cluracan  of  Faerie offers his sister Nuala as a gift to Dream and then stumbles off to a sexual encounter with one of the Egyptian delegation's servants, and all the while Loki observes all the other participants with a watchful eye, as do the two angels sent from the celestial city. Eventually, of course, each presents themselves before Dream to make the case that they should be handed the Key to Hell.

But what is more interesting than the threats, offers, and pleas is the background of events. As usual in the Sandman books, the things happening in the interstitial spaces of the story are the most interesting - the dinner's entertainment is the recurring character Cain, performing a magic act with his brother Abel in which he yet again kills his sibling. And turns him into sausages. Merkin and Azazel betray their companion Choronzon. Susano-O-No-Mikoto admits to petitioning Dream on his own, without the support of his pantheon. And in a single panel aside one of Dream's servants, a human experiencing Dream's realm in a dream-state, tries to connect with another. And so on. Each of these threads is not a part of the main story line of Season of Mists, but as usual with Gaiman's writing, one can be assured that most of them will become critical elements in later installments of the series.

And in the morning, we get a resolution of sorts. And as is often the case, the events happening in the background seem to suggest more than the main story. Nuala is awakened by her brother and in an aside says that all she hopes for is a good night sleep before chewing up some paper. Nuala's entire demeanor speaks of someone who has been sexually abused, with the implication that Cluracan may be the abuser. After wandering the halls of Dream's mansion and overhearing snippets of conversation from some other factions, Nuala comes to Dream's great hall and we see that the factions we have seen in the story make up only a portion of the petitioners seeking the Key to Hell (with the noted exception of the Greek gods, who apparently declined to attend). In the end the rule of Hell is determined, but not exactly as one might have foreseen. And once again Gaiman returns to the question of what purpose does Hell serve, and what role it's ruler must play - casting Lucifer once again in a sympathetic light and throwing doubt upon the justness of his exile. And Gaiman also makes a commentary on the nature of Hell, and why sometimes love is worse than hate.

But as usual, the important element of the story is not really the disposition of the Key to Hell, but rather the changes to the lives of the characters.  And what the idea of Hell means. The faerie princess Nuala is surprised to learn that she was not merely a bargaining chip, but an unconditional gift to Dream. And we learn of Dream's dislike for illusions. As the representatives of the various pantheons depart, it turns out that at least one of them is not who he seems, and one ends up owing Dream a favor, a development that is certain to feature later in the series. And the story of Nada is resolved, although in a somewhat bittersweet manner, and with Dream once again tangling with one of the powers of Hell in the process.

Although by setting the story against the backdrop of the question of who gets to rule Hell, Gaiman runs the risk of the smaller and more important elements getting lost, I think that it allows him to highlight these story elements all the more. Because the stakes are so high for the various factions that desire the Key, they lay all their cards on the table and we are able to see what their fears and desires are, and everything that they would have to offer Dream. And we also get to see just what Dream does and does not care about - which often seems to surprise his petitioners as well. And we also get a glimpse of how this conflict affects the lives of the mere mortals who live in the shadows of the doings of the gods and the Endless, and this is, in my opinion, the touch that makes this series so good. It would have been easy to deal with the sweeping issues of the series, but it brings the events into much sharper focus to show what effect the doings of the mighty have upon the meek, and how petty and unfair the actions of the mighty seem when this is shown. The story, as a result, seems epic, but only until the implications of the squabbling of the players is shown, which makes this volume so much more compelling to read. Overall, Season of Mists is the strongest volume of the series thus far, and definitely worth reading.

Previous book in the series: The Sandman, Vol. 3: Dream Country
Subsequent book in the series: The Sandman, Vol. 5: A Game of You

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  1. Season of Mists was the first Sandman book I truly loved, if only because my appreciation for both Preludes and Nocturnes and The Doll's House only really came into being upon reread. The art was brooding, fitting the mood wonderfully, and I was blown away by the story progression. Even after reading the second half of the series (which clearly dominates in terms of quality - both art, writing and storytelling), I always comes back to Season of Mists with a sense of, "Oh, here we go."

  2. @Biblibio: I agree that Season of Mists is the first high point of the series, but what makes it (and the whole series) so good are the threads that were established in earlier volumes that are woven into in this one, plus the seeds that are planted in this volume that bloom later.

    And this means that while Season of Mists is a great story, it wouldn't be nearly as good unless it followed on Preludes and Nocturnes, The Doll's House, and Dream Country. The foundation those volumes laid served to make this one that much better.

  3. I've been reading Sandman lately. So far I'm at volume 6, and I agree that Season of Mists is the strongest. Its story arc has much more crucial consequences compared to the other volumes (as far as I've read). I mean, we're talking about Hell here, and the possibilities of rising conflict because of the Key. I enjoyed this post. And I've also written a review of this volume (since it's also my favorite) in here.

    1. @Arvin Saints: I am planning on forging ahead in the series and reviewing the rest soon. of course, for me "soon" always seems to be pushed down the road a bit. But I will get to them. Soon.