Neil Gaiman's shorter Sandman stories are like gems. But honestly, I've always preferred the longer arc-stories that fill out an entire collection -- and "The Absolute Sandman Vol. 2" brings together two of those stories, full of the richness of Gaiman's imagination and his entrancingly vivid characters.
"A Season of Mists" opens with a meeting of the Endless going wrong when Morpheus is challenged about his past treatment of his lover Nada. Chastened, he decides to go to Hell and free her. But when he gets there, Morpheus learns that Lucifer is tired of being the lord of Hell, and is busy shutting the whole place down.
Unfortunately, this means leaving the souls of the damned to wander the Earth. He gives ownership of it to Morpheus, but unsurprisingly Morpheus isn't interested. And soon various powers begin appearing to claim it -- ancient gods, demons, Order, Chaos, and Faerie. Who will become the new lords of Hell?
"A Game of You" picks up with Barbie, a very minor character from "The Doll's House," who has broken up with her husband and moved to New York. There she lives in an apartment building with her M-to-F buddy Wanda, a lesbian couple, a weird prim lady named Thessaly, and a weird guy.
But then she has a run-in with an imaginary creature from her childhood, who gives her a magical jewel with his dying breath. Soon Barbie is pulled into the fantasy world of her childhood, where she battles a mysterious enemy called the Cuckoo. But Thessaly and her neighbors set out to rescue her before she is lost forever -- and New York with her.
"Absolute Sandman Vol. 2" shows how incredibly versatile Neil Gaiman's writing can be -- it encompasses different worlds, dimensions and lands in a seeemingly endless, wondrously terrifying universe. But at the same time, it can delve into the infinite complexities of a single human mind.
Gaiman is absolutely brilliant at conjuring the exquisite and the grotesque, the eerie and the strange -- and he manages all of those here. There are childlike imaginings, the twilit realm of the Dreaming, and the visceral grotesqueness of the demons (one is a lumpen creature with a melting eyeless head and toothy mouths for nipples). It fascinates, even in its ugly moments.
My only problem, really, is in "Season of Mists." It bases itself on Christian theology that many people actually believe in (heaven, hell, Satan, angels, God, etc). But it isn't in line with those beliefs, so some parts of it come across as... uncomfortable to devout people.
Morpheus undergoes some truly enthralling character development. He's given a realm he doesn't want, but doesn't seem to have any good way of ridding himself of it (at least, not at first). And the Lord of Dream has to face up to his own misdeeds -- namely, he FINALLY figures out that he was horrible to Nada, and that his punishment of her was cruel.
But "A Game of You" also shows that even the most minor character becomes a fully realized, multidimensional character in Gaiman's hands. Barbie becomes a fragile, rather uncertain young woman, along with Foxglove, Hazel and the gold-hearted Wanda.
"Absolute Sandman Vol. 2" is a must-have for the die-hard aficionados who have some cash burning a hole in their pockets. Truly spellbinding.