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Smoke and Mirrors
by Neil Gaiman
Headline, 2000. Paperback. 352 pages.
ISBN 074726368X (buy at Amazon.co.uk)
Bought on 10 October 2001 at Amazon.co.uk for £5.59
The distinctive storytelling genius of Neil Gaiman has been acclaimed by writers as diverse as Norman Mailer and Stephen King. Now in this new collection of stories -- several of which have never before appeared in print and more than half that have never been collected -- that will dazzle the senses and haunt the imagination.
Miraculous inventions and unforgettable characters inhabit these pages: an elderly widow who finds the Holy Grail in a second-hand store...a frightened little boy who bargains for his life with a troll living under a bridge by the railroad tracks...a stray cat who battles nightly against a recurring evil that threatens his unsuspecting adoptive family. In these stories, Gaiman displays the power, wit, insight and outrageous originality that has made him one of the most unique literary artists of our day.
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Review by Christina Schulman on 15 February 1999
Smoke and Mirrors is a career-spanning collection of short stories and poetry by Neil Gaiman, author of Neverwhere and the comic book series The Sandman. There's quite a bit of overlap with his earlier collection, Angels and Visitations. Some of the pieces are forgettable, and some should have stayed forgotten, but there are several brilliant stories here, with people and images that will haunt you long after you finish the book.
Gaiman plays fast and loose with both ancient and modern myths. "Chivalry" is a lovely, funny story about an elderly woman who finds the Holy Grail in a secondhand shop. "Bay Wolf" is an unlikely combination of "Beowulf" and "Baywatch". "Snow, Glass, Apples" is a version of Snow White that Disney would never have touched. And a few of the stories include direct nods to H.P. Lovecraft's Cthulhu mythos; both "Shoggoth's Old Peculiar" and "Only the End of the World Again" feature encounters in Innsmouth.
Some of the stories have heavy-handed messages, and some are entertaining but pointless. And then there are a few that seem pointless until the point comes along and knocks you in the head three days later. "Murder Mysteries," about the investigation of the first murder, is one of the latter sort. Throughout the pieces collected in Smoke and Mirrors, Gaiman reveals a fascination with angels, demons, and computers; frequently he fails to distinguish between them.
Oddly enough, the best part of the book is the introduction, which includes an entire story as well as comments on each of the works in the collection. Flipping back and forth between the introduction and the stories is an awkward way to read, but Gaiman's comments offer quite a bit of insight into how he writes and where each piece came from.
Many of the pieces in Smoke and Mirrors include explicit language, sex, and mutilation; this book may not be suitable for children or congressmen. The quality is uneven, but at his best Neil Gaiman is very good indeed, and at his worst he's still creatively morbid.
Review by Neil Walsh on 30 May 1998
I've been a fan of Neil Gaiman's writing since issue #1 of Sandman first appeared on the shelves of my local comic store. And that's high praise from me, because I've only ever found 3 comic titles that had writing of a calibre to keep me interested for more than a few issues. Sandman was certainly one of them.
Last year, for the SF Site's "Best of 1997," I voted for Gaiman's novel, Neverwhere, as my choice for the best new book I read that year. For me, then, Smoke and Mirrors is a real treat as it offers not only a wide selection of stories and poems from one of my favourite writers, but also some insight into the mind of the artist.
I enjoy reading about the circumstances surrounding the story I'm about to read. But I hate boring, bad or excessively didactic introductions. I much prefer to read what the author has to say about his or her own work than to read some scholar's interpretation of the symbolism inherent in the blah, blah, blah. And in this book, Gaiman introduces each of his stories in his own words -- always brief, and always insightful.
The stories in this collection are not new, although a few of them have not been previously published. And don't be frightened off by the knowledge that there are a few poems interspersed throughout. Gaiman's poems tend to be more narrative than self-indulgent, and if there's an element of self-indulgence in his poems it's forgivable because it's generally in the format. Rondels and sestinas, for example, are cleverly structured poems which are difficult to do well, but which can cause a thrill of pleasure when they are successful.
In this collection, as in much of Gaiman's writing, the focus is on fairy tales, fantasy, surrealism, satire and sex. Call me lazy, if you will, but I don't care to single out individual stories in this review and concentrate on only those few. And there are too many to discuss all of them. Everyone will have their own favourites. Suffice it to say that if you're a fan of Neil Gaiman, Smoke and Mirrors is a must read. And if you're not a fan of Neil Gaiman, read this collection and you will be.
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