Preludes and Nocturnes is easily the weakest of the individual Sandman novels... but still better than most of the funny-books out there. The first chapter is a self-contained story dealing with Morpheus' seventy-year imprisonment by an amateur English magician, and his escape. The rest of the novel deals with his adventures re-claiming his three tools: his sand pouch, his ruby, and his helmet. The second chapter is set-up for the rest of the story, featuring DC Comics' horror mainstays Cain & Abel. The third story is one of the best in this book, guest-starring Hellblazer's John Constantine, whose ex-girlfriend is in possession of the bag of sand. Part four is one of my all-time favorite Sandman stories: "A Hope in Hell", where Morpheus goes to the pit, running into Lucifer Morningstar (one of the best characters in the series), and challenging a demon to regain his helmet. Parts five through seven involve a super-villain named Dr. Destiny (not to be confused with the real Destiny, Dream's brother) escaping from a madhouse, going on a murderous rampage in one of the most horrific stories I've ever read in a comic. Part six "24 Hours," especially so, where Dr. Destiny slowly drives the customers in an overnight diner mad, eventually killing each other. But chances are, if you're buying this, and you've heard of Neil Gaiman's Sandman before, it's for part eight, "The Sound of Her Wings", the introduction of the most famous (and nicest) member of the regular cast, Dream's big sister Death. She shows up to take her depressed brother with her for a hard day's work of taking people to the next life, quoting Mary Poppins all the while. This is a fine story, a nice promise of the kind of story that there are to look forward to later on.
Neil's style was just coming onto its own here, but his lyrical, poetic style is for the most part intact, as well as his original, and at times terrifying ideas. The superhero stuff really doesn't work all that well. Surely Gaiman could have thought of some more interesting hero than Mister Miracle to aid Sandman in his search, and the cameo by Martian Manhunter, while nicely handled by having him recognize Morpheus as the Martian god of dreams, left that character grossly mischaracterized. On the other hand, I was impressed that so many characters that would be important later on were introduced here, given the feeling that Gaiman was still cutting his chops in this book.
The art style is a bit weak, compared to the other novels in the series. "Preludes" is the one that looks the most "four-color", more like a traditional comic. Sam Keith's (who was absolutely right when he describes his work on Sandman as "Jimi Hendrix playing with the Beatles") work is a little too cartoony, though I must admit, the man draws one mean Hell. Mike Dringenberg's style, on the other hand, works very well with Sandman, despite being a bit too sketchy, and not having enough detail in faces.
In closing, I'd recommend to anyone thinking of purchasing this book to either read it before the others, because it won't seem as diminished as it would after reading some of the other classics later on in the series, or after the others, since there are other books in the series that give the reader much more bang for your buck.