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Neil Gaiman – Smoke and Mirrors

March 15, 2011

34. Smoke and Mirrors: Short Fictions and Illusions by Neil Gaiman (1998)

Length: 356 pages
Genre: Short stories and story-poems, mostly fantasy

Started: 26 February 2011
Finished: 01 March 2011

Where did it come from? Christmas present.
Why do I have it? To round out my Neil Gaiman short story collection (not complete yet, but getting there).
How long has it been on my TBR pile? Since 25 December 2010.

Summary: Smoke and Mirrors is a collection of Neil Gaiman’s short stories and story-poems. They’re primarily from earlier in his career, and run the gamut to werewolf detectives to alien STDs, and from fairy tale kingdoms to 1980s London to the End of the World. Although some of the stories overlap with M is for Magic, Gaiman’s YA story collection, Smoke and Mirrors is emphatically not a book for kids, as many of the stories deal, unashamedly if not necessarily explicitly, with sex and death, usually in equal measures.

Review: I got this book after realizing that M is for Magic was not a collection of new stories, but rather an anthology that drew primarily from Fragile Things and this book. As a consequence of having read Gaiman’s other collections, however, I was already familiar with a number of the stories in Smoke and Mirrors. This was just fine by me; “Chivalry”, “The Price”, “Shoggoth’s Old Peculiar”, and “Vampire Sestina” are all very good stories, and “Troll Bridge” and “Don’t Ask Jack” are fine as well, if not my particular favorites. As for the rest of the stories… well, it was kind of a mixed bag.

For most of the book, the stories were ticking along at a pretty good pace, even if they weren’t blowing my mind. “Changes” and “We Can Get Them For You Wholesale” were fascinating and bitterly funny, “Mouse” and “One Life, Furnished in Early Moorcock” were haunting and unexpectedly poignant, and “When We Went to See the End of the World by Dawnie Morningside, Age 11 1/4” was a bit of both. The rest of the stories were interesting enough, if not really attention-grabbing, although the story-poems (of which there were a fair few) didn’t really do much for me… I typically prefer more structured poetry (like “Vampire Sestina”). Maybe Gaiman’s too good of a storyteller… I’m so used to him at the top of his game that this collection of earlier works didn’t quite get the job done.

Regardless, everything changed when I got to the last two stories, “Murder Mysteries” and “Snow, Glass, Apples.” I know these stories have been reprinted elsewhere, but it was my first encounter with them, and man alive. *That* is how to write a seriously good short story. I’m sure it didn’t hurt that I’m predisposed to love fairy tale retellings and fallen angel stories, but… wow, they were good.

So, overall, this collection wasn’t perfect, and had a handful of low spots… but also a handful of shining high spots, too, and the stories are quick enough that even when I wasn’t particularly into one of them, I was already on to the next. 3.5 out of 5 stars.

Recommendation: Fans of Gaiman’s works, dive in! There’ll probably be some familiar stories, and some are starting to show their age, but there’s quite a few gems worth reading, too. For Gaiman newbies, I wouldn’t start here. Although Gaiman’s a great storyteller, this collection’s kind of patchy, and not representative of him at his best.

This Review on LibraryThing | This Book on LibraryThing | This Book on Amazon

Other Reviews: Dazed Rambling, Eclectic / Eccentric
Have you reviewed this book? Leave a comment with the link and I’ll add it in.

First Line: They do it with mirrors.

Vocab: (see the whole list)

  • p. 4: “After all the joys and the headaches of the wedding, after the madness and the magic of it all (not to mention the embarrassment of Belinda’s father’s after-dinner speech, complete with family slide show), after the honeymoon was literally (although not yet metaphorically) over and before their new suntans had a chance to fade in the English autumn, Belinda and Gordon got down to the business of unwrapping the wedding presents and writing their thank you letters – than yous enough for every towel and every toaster, for the juicer and the breadmaker, for the cutlery and the crockery and the teasmade and the curtains.” – a device for making tea automatically, generally featuring an analogue alarm clock.
  • p. 201: “Peter held his Financial Times under one arm as conspicuously as he could, but no one approached him, so he bought a half of shandy and retreated to a corner table.” – a mixture of beer and lemonade.
  • p. 233: “In the kitchen I hear the pigeons billing and queuing,
    dreaming of left-handed knives,
    of athanors and mirrors.
    ” – a digester furnace with a self-feeding fuel supply contained in a towerlike contrivance, ensuring a constant, durable temperature.
  • p. 279: “And he felt the city of tents then like dry sand, hissing and escaping
    through his fingers, and he shivered, and buried his head in his burnous,
    And sobbed, so he could no longer hear the drums.
    ” – a hooded mantle or cloak, as that worn by Arabs.

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9 Comments leave one →
  1. March 15, 2011 10:15 am

    Thanks for this. I really do need to read more of Gaiman’s short stories. Maybe I’ll start with this.

    • March 16, 2011 12:27 pm

      Gavin – I wouldn’t hand this book to someone who’s never read Gaiman at all, but if you’re just looking for his short stories, either this one or Fragile Things would be fine… they were both a mixed bag of stories I loved and stories I didn’t care for, so there’s nothing to really recommend one over the other… although this one did have more story-poems than I remember there being in Fragile Things.

  2. March 15, 2011 10:46 am

    I read this a few years ago and was like you, some were really good, but others were just okay. I was also not crazy about the poems. I am not a huge short story fan, so I don’t even really remember this collection anymore for the most part. I am going to go dig it out and see what those last two stories were. The titles sound familiar, so I am pretty sure I read them and enjoyed them, but it was a while ago!

    • March 16, 2011 12:28 pm

      Kailana – I’ve also got a really terrible memory, especially when it comes to short stories, but I think the time spent just to re-read those last two would be well worth it.

  3. March 15, 2011 1:51 pm

    I’ve only read 2 of Gaiman’s stories, so I kind of consider myself a newbie and will probably skip this one.

    • March 16, 2011 12:29 pm

      Kathy – Yeah, I’d recommend some of Gaiman’s books before diving into his short stories.

  4. March 15, 2011 10:33 pm

    Oh and have you heard the radio play of “Snow, Glass, Apples”, and have you read the graphic novel of Murder Mysteries? Both so, so, so good. Murder Mysteries in particular. Murder Mysteries is marvelous, illustrated by P. Craig Russell. It’s probably my favorite one-off graphic novel by Gaiman.

    • March 16, 2011 12:30 pm

      Jenny – No to both. BUT, although my library doesn’t have the graphic novel, it does have the audiobook of Two Plays for Voices… and the second play is Murder Mysteries! Guess what I’ll be listening to next! :)


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