Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Review - The Sandman, Vol. 5: A Game of You by Neil Gaiman

Short review: A dream world threatens the life of a young woman, the dead talk, travelers enter the dream realm uninvited, and a trapped spirit yearns to break free.

Dreams invade real life
Barbie's asked to save a world
Walk the moon road

Full review: After you create a story in which the disposition of Hell itself is at stake, what do you do to follow it up? Once you have Lucifer hand over the keys to Hell and all the supernatural powers of the universe vie to claim them with the fallout from that struggle washing over to affect the lives of the mundane, one might find it difficult to keep the reader's interest. If you are Neil Gaiman, you write A Game of You, a tale in which you invert everything about Season of Mists and create a story in which the internal struggles in the dreams of a single person become a threat far beyond what one might expect.

The central characters in the story are Barbie, last seen in The Doll's House, but now having shed her shallow and abusive boyfriend; and her neighbor Wanda, a woman who wishes she could actually be a woman but whose biology has betrayed her. Barbie, now living in a run down apartment in New York, is surrounded by a colorful cast of characters: the lesbian couple Hazel and Foxglove who also live in the building that Barbie and Wanda inhabit, the homeless lady terrified of dogs who lives just outside the building, the cryptic woman Thessaly, and the creepy man who lives on the top floor. In what seems to have been an almost conscious decision to restrict the universe the characters inhabit to a single building.

But those aren't the only characters in the story. On the flip side of sleep, Barbie finds a collection of dream characters: Prinado, Luz, and Wilkinson. But it seems that all is not well in Barbie's dreams, and her dream characters begin to invade mundane reality, in the form of the dog-like Martin Tenbones. And from there, the events in the book begin to spin out of control as Barbie's dream reality begins to affect the mundane reality more and more profoundly. Barbie is drawn into her dream world (when she falls asleep), where a cast of characters that inhabited her childhood dreams look to her to save them from the Cuckoo, while at the same time her friends in the real world deal with the impact the struggle inside Barbie's dreams is having upon their lives. And the struggle inside and outside the dream world turns brutal and bloody quickly.

Effectively, the struggle faced by Barbie is purely internal, but around her the struggle takes place in the real world. The Cuckoo has a real world agent, and Wanda, Foxglove, and Hazel have to deal with him with the assistance of the mysterious Thessaly. After some fairly gruesome and bloody information gathering, Thessaly decides that the women in the group need to go on a rescue mission to assist Barbie via a fairly dangerous path - a choice that results in even more negative real world repercussions. Everyone follows their assigned path to the conclusion of the story, at which point all of the threads reunite, Dream makes his presence felt, and the mystery of the Porpentine and the Cuckoo is finally unraveled.

But one of the themes running through the story is built upon the idea that dreams have very real consequences in reality, and the story doesn't end without punching that point home. And this being a Gaiman penned story, the resolution also weaves in the other thematic element of the story and deals with gender directly - both in the crisis that threatens to tear apart Hazel and Foxglove and Wanda's struggle to assert her own identity to the very end. As one would expect, both of these stories tie thematically to the story of the Cuckoo - a creature struggling to be born and assert its own identity. What at first glance seems to be a collection of disparate elements, in the end turns out to be a tightly interwoven set of powerful themes.

From a certain perspective, A Game of You was set up to be something of a disappointment following directly after Season of Mists. However, despite being more subtle in its telling in some ways, it manages to avoid this fate. By focusing on the consequences of one person's dreams run out of control, Gaiman manages to craft a story that is both substantially different from the previous volume, and yet follows on to it quite perfectly.

Previous book in the series: The Sandman, Vol. 4: Season of Mists
Subsequent book in the series: The Sandman, Vol. 6: Fables and Reflections

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