This fifth book in The Sandman series is about a single dream. This dream has spanned much of the sleeping life of Barbie, the protagonist of the story, who we first met as one of the flatmates in The Doll’s House. Barbie has since left her odd husband and taken up residence with a different collection of flatmates: a transsexual, a witch, a lesbian couple and a funny little man called George. The Sandman himself takes a back seat in this story, observing rather than providing any specific help when things start to go a bit pear-shaped and elements of Barbie’s dream begin appearing in the real world.
Gaiman has spun a yarn that is part fantasy adventure (with elements of The Lord of the Rings, The Wizard of Oz and Alice in Wonderland) with a contemporary horror story (that intertwines modern-day New York with a touch of fantasy). The result is a fascinating fairy tale, but one that is dreamed by an adult, bringing elements of her childhood fantasies into a mature setting. As a result, the line between good and evil is murky and things don’t seem to fall neatly into such clearly defined categories.
The writing is done with a deft touch. The dialogue is subtle and real in Gaiman’s ‘real’ world and touched with an almost stereotypical fantasy styling in the dream. This is helped along by Todd Klein’s able lettering skills, which can do as much to add character at times as the work of the writer or artist.
It’s the split of the artwork duties that pulls this book apart a little. Shawn McManus is a perfect choice for creating the fantasy world and he does a wonderful job bringing life to the dream’s talking animals. But there’s a single chapter drawn by Colleen Doran that disrupts the flow because of its dramatically different style. Bryan Talbot also takes on some drawing work, though his style is more in keeping with McManus’ work.
Despite the visual detractions, we’re left with is a solid fairy tale for grown-ups that’s thoughtful and interesting to read. The nature of dreams is such that, unless you spend a lot of time pondering these things, it’s difficult to get insight into them. We suspect Neil Gaiman spends more time than most thinking about dreams and it remains a pleasure to read the stories he bases around them.