Review: Smoke and Mirrors – Short Fictions and Illusions

Book: Smoke and Mirrors – Short Fictions and Illusions

Author: Neil Gaiman

My Rating: 3/5 Stars

Recommended for: Die hard Neil Gaiman Fans

Reading this book was like sticking my hand into a large jar of loose change. Most of the time you are going to pull out a penny or a nickel, but every once in a while you find that holy grail – the elusive quarter.

Smoke and Mirrors: Short Fictions and Illusions is a short story collection by British author Neil Gaiman. Within its pages are 31 short stories written throughout Mr. Gaiman’s career. There is a good deal of variety between the stories, which range from poetry to micro-fiction to your standard length short story, and they all seemed to fit into this aptly named collection. That being said, my overall impressions can be summed up in one word…meh.

As a reader, I love short stories because I feel they give an author the chance to showcase their abilities in a way that differs drastically from a novel. All of my favorite authors are ones who can not only write engaging novels, but also short stories that entrap my attention and leave me wanting more. Sometimes life is moving a bit too quickly to find the time to sit down and enjoy a full length novel, so having the option to dive into a collection of shorter works and make my way through them one at a time is a nice option. Some authors (such as a personal favorite – Ray Bradbury) embrace the short story and come up with masterfully written sagas that blend together to tell an overarching narrative (The Illustrated Man) while some, like Mr. Gaiman, prefer to write stories that mostly stand apart. I enjoy both equally, but like I said above, a great number of these were duds, pennies in a jar full of change.

Minor spoilers to follow as I give small summaries for most of the stories in the collection, along with my thoughts.

Reading the Entrails – Not for me. Gaiman’s poetic style is not one I enjoy reading.

The Wedding Present – This was included with Gaiman’s introduction and was somewhat interesting. A couple gets a novel as a wedding present and each time they open it the story has changed. It kept me engaged, but it wasn’t anything special.

Chivalry – One knight’s search for the Holy Grail in modern UK leads him to an old woman’s mantle. Originally written for a children’s story collection and it shows. It was boring.

 Nicholas Was… – The first piece I really liked! A dark twist on Christmas and I think the first time I have ever seen micro fiction in a published work. I liked it a lot.

The Price – A story about a cat who protects a home from a demon. This was one of the better crafted stories in the collection and was one of my favorites. I don’t even like cats, but this was definitely one of the top three for me.

Troll Bridge – I actually read this one first when deciding whether or not to buy this collection in the bookstore. A child meets a troll under a bridge and then again and again as he grows up. The ending was fitting. One of the better stories in my opinion.

Don’t Ask Jack – This one was really boring. I suppose it was supposed to be a chilling tale of a Jack-in-the-Box, but I honestly don’t even remember what happens.

The Goldfish Pool and Other Stories – A story about a writer’s disillusioned journey to Hollywood and the hotel attendant he meets while he is there. Another hit for me, this one was a bit longer and it was entertaining throughout. I loved the way he portrays Hollywood.

The White Road – More narrative poetry – didn’t make it past the first page.

Queen of Knives – I actually finished this narrative poem, but overall it was meh.

Changes – Interesting concept. A new cancer drug has unintentional side effects when it is discovered it can allow people to change gender on a whim. I liked the dialogue it raises on the ethics of pharmaceuticals and the questions of gender in society. Execution felt like it could have been better, though.

The Daughter of Owls – Rape in olden-times. Not for me.

Shoggoth’s Old Peculiar – I kept thinking it would get better, but in the end I don’t really know what this one was about.

Virus – A short piece on video game addiction. It was also very MEH.

Looking for the Girl – I like stories where the main character goes through their life, but there is always that one constant they come back to. Here it was a girl the main character saw in a dirty mag one day. It was well written and entertaining.

Only the End of the World Again – Cult of Cthulhu tries to sacrifice a werewolf to revive the fallen God. Werewolves and ancient gods – what’s not to like?

Bay Wolf – The werewolf character returns in a different story to kill a monster terrorizing Venice Beach. This one was funny and well written. Two thumbs up.

We Can Get Them For You Wholesale – An entirely average guy finds out his girlfriend is cheating on him and finds an ad for an assassination company to kill her lover. As a man who can never turn down a good offer or a sale, he finds himself in a precarious position when the company rep offers him a deal on multiple hits…This one was funny and I liked the concept, but it kind of peters out as it ends.

One Life, Furnished in Early Moorcock – I don’t know who Michael Moorcock Elric is so this one wasn’t my cup of tea.

Cold Colors – More poetry so I inevitably didn’t enjoy it.

The Sweeper of Dreams – Who cleans up your dreams when you wake so you can go about your day as a functional human? What happens if he stops cleaning up your dreams? This one was short, but I wish it had been longer. An interesting concept.

Foreign Parts – For someone with minor hypochondria this was a nightmare to read. I don’t need stories about STDs in my life.

Vampire Sestina – Even more poetry.

Mouse – Another one that I finished without really grasping if there was a point to it all. Boring.

The Sea Change – I wish I had known how much poetry was in this collection and how much his poetic prose bores me.

When We Went to See the End of the World by Dawnie Morningside, age 11¼ – Yawn.

Desert Wind – A poem about a man who sees a mirage in the desert. The only poem I really enjoyed in the collection.

Tastings – Erotic fiction is not for me, so this was not one I enjoyed.

Babycakes – I liked it. Title says it all.

Murder Mysteries – A story within a story of the first murder in Heaven. This was well crafted and entertaining.

Snow, Glass, Apples – A twist on Snow White. Another top three for me and a good selection for the closing piece. At least I will remember this one when I think back to this collection.

If you bothered to read through all of those then you will see I liked about half of the stories in this collection. Mr. Gaiman writes killer novels and is an amazing storyteller, but this one just fell flat for me. I have heard good things about Fragile Things so maybe I will give that a try some day. Unless you are a die hard Neil Gaiman fan, I would recommend passing on this one.

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