Sunday, December 22, 2013

Not-Review: World War Z

I'm a very bad flyer. Right now, in my wallet, nestles the business card of a very nice Egyptian man who sat next to me and let me paw his arm and knee in sweaty, shaky panic as we descended into JFK Airport during a tornado warning. This was during the Arab Spring uprisings and he was on his way to fetch his mother in Cairo and bring her back to live with him in Los Angeles. Between the two of us, I think he had a hell of a lot more to be worried about. But panic is stupid and irrational that way, and there's really nothing I can do about my fear of flying except get on the damn plane and wait for it to be over.

I tell this story because I'm panicking right now for a very stupid and irrational reason, and it's time to land this plane. I have to stop reading "World War Z."

I hate zombies. I hate how fucking ubiquitous they've become in modern culture because it means I have to encounter them on every geek website and convention I go to. I'm not a big horror fan to begin with--I don't much like being scared, I get nightmares, and I grew up in a place that believes very strongly in the existence of ghosts, gods and ghouls. Tell a grown-up in Hawaii that you had seen a ghost, and they're probably going to say, "Yeah, there's loads of them around here." So my mind is very ready to believe.

As you might guess, I loved this show. It confirmed all my worst fears about the world.
And yet, despite knowing this about myself--despite getting nightmares from "Zombieland," which is a goddamn comedy about zombies, I find myself spending my Sunday afternoon in a soggy mass of fear-sweat reading this stupid book. Why did I think it would be a good idea to pick up Max Brooks's "World War Z" from a Brooklyn stoop and take it home with me? What possible outcome could I hope for other than sweaty, shaky panic and the utter conviction that society is about to collapse under the weight of the undead hordes? Was it because Max Brooks is Mel Brooks's son?

I may have had very different expectations for this book.
I don't know. But I had to stop reading and come write this instead, even though I can't really write a review of a book I haven't exactly read. I mean, I read the first 10 pages, and then I skipped ahead and read a 30 page chunk in the middle of the book, thinking that maybe if I jumped to the middle of the action, where it's all zombie-killing all the time, I wouldn't be as scared.

I should say that as far as zombie stories go, this one is pretty good. It's hard to come into a genre that's already overstuffed with variations on a theme. We've had slow zombies, fast zombies, romantic comedy zombies, zombies as a metaphor for racism, for capitalism, for sex--you name it, somebody has probably put zombies in it. "World War Z" sets itself apart from the pack by its form more than its story. It's written as an oral history of the titular World War Z, which ended 10 years before the book opens. The author collects first-person accounts from survivors about their experiences in the war, and I read them and cry and cry and cry.

That's all I've got in terms of a formal review. I'm sure this is a very good book, but I'm going to dump it on the doorstep tomorrow. The truth is, zombies hit a little too close to home. They're a manifestation of humanity run amok, a blight upon the earth, an unstoppable force whose existence signals the end of society. And I don't need a reminder of that shit. A hurricane brought floodwaters within two blocks of my home; student loan debt stands at a trillion-plus; the coral is dying in Kona. Cataclysmic destruction is real enough in my world. I don't see the need to compound it with the fear of fucking zombies.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Scifi Review: The Left Hand of Darkness

The sixties. Hell of a decade for science fiction. Kurt Vonnegut's "Cat's Cradle" and "Slaughterhouse-Five," Robert Heinlein's "Stranger in a Strange Land," Philip K. Dick's "Do Androids Dream of Electrical Sheep," aka "Bladerunner," and "The Man in the High Castle," aka "The Nazis Won."

But like everything that ever existed, it's not all about white dudes. This week we're going to look at Ursula K. Le Guin's 1969 novel, "The Left Hand of Darkness," which broke new ground for the exploration of feminism in science fiction. The book raised the bar for the sci-fi genre in general, reaffirming its importance in the family of literature as a vehicle for challenging deeply held societal concepts.

"Left Hand" takes the concepts of sex and gender--which are so fundamental to the identity of humans everywhere that they seem to fall under the category of "instinct" rather than "cultural norm"--and asks what would happen if they simply didn't exist. What would humans be like without genders or sexual identities?

I feel compelled to point out that this isn't like the Junior Anti-Sex League in "1984," nor is it the weee, free love let everyone fuck everyone else! in "Brave New World." Sci-fi abounds with societies in which sexual behavior is distorted or controlled by governments and outside influences--that's pretty much the world we live in now, which is why so many authors of all genres like to write about it.

Nor is it like that one episode of "Star Trek: The Next Generation" where the writers tried to make a point about gay rights by having an alien from ambi-sexual, genderless race "come out" as female and declare her love for Riker, only to be kidnapped by her family and go through gender conversion therapy to get rid of all the lady in her.
To be fair, who wouldn't turn lady for that face?
The examples above start with the assumption that humans have genders and sexual identities, and extrapolate situations in which those attributes are shaped or controlled to achieve various societal and cultural outcomes. "Left Hand" is significant because it begins with a different premise altogether. It asks readers to imagine a world in which humans don't think about those things because they simply don't exist. What if we really could just treat each other like "people"?

The world of "Left Hand" is populated by humans who are gender neutral the vast majority of the time. Once a month, they go into "heat," as it were, wherein their bodies are able to get pregnant or sire children. For those few days, their bodies have a "gender" or a "sex" as we might conceive it, but because people have an equal chance of being either gender every time they go into heat, such distinctions are largely meaningless. Except for those few days of the month, the humans have neither the urge nor the ability to have sex, so while the society has "room for sex, it is a room apart."

Ironically, I have to spend a lot of time talking about sex in order to introduce a society in which sex simply doesn't matter. Except for a few pages toward the beginning, describing what I've outlined above, the plot of "Left Hand" isn't at all concerned with sex, gender, or sexual identity. The most significant aspect of this book, the one everyone talks about when they talk about "The Left Hand of Darkness," is the least important part of the actual story, which is about a small planet's first contact with alien life. But that's how central sex is to our own society--it's there even when it's not.

So, the story is about first contact. A human from our Earth, Genly Ai, has come to the icy planet of Gethen as an envoy for this vague, benevolent organization of planets called the Ekumen (the United Nations or Star Fleet equivalent of this world). He is there to convince the people of Gethen that they are not alone in the universe and invite them to join the other planets in trade and cross-cultural exchange. One high-ranking member of the government, Estraven, believes in Genly's mission and what he represents, but Estraven is outmaneuvered by another politician, who wants to use Genly's presence to start a war with another country. Estraven and Genly both end up exiled to the other country, which is a totalitarian state. They have to escape from a concentration camp and get out of the country over a glacier in the middle of winter, with the slim hope of contacting Genly's ship and crewmates in orbit around the planet if they reach civilization alive.

I remember being somewhat perplexed the first time I read this book, because I thought it was going to be explicitly about sex and power, a la "The Handmaid's Tale." It's actually an adventure story, full of political intrigue, daring escapes, and treacherous journeys through merciless but beautiful landscapes. Gethen is in the middle of an ice age, so the characters are always on the razor edge of survival, and tiny decisions can mean the difference between life and death from exposure or starvation. (It's winter here in New York, by the way, and I hate it, which is why I decided to read this book.)

I read in a couple of different reviews that "Left Hand" is considered soft science fiction, meaning it's more concerned with characters and society than with physics or engineering. And it's true that while the narrator Genly Ai is an alien from a society that has mastered space travel, Gethen itself has about the same technology as the era in which it was written, minus television and air travel. However, I find it more challenging than other hard sci-fi works I've encountered, such as Isaac Asimov's "Foundations," because reading "Left Hand" requires a constant readjustment of the reader's relationship to the Gethen characters.
I had to view them as both male and female, and remind myself that their actions and attitudes have to be seen as coming from both sexual identities. It's quite a mind trip. I can't accurately describe how it makes me feel as a reader to work so hard at undoing my social conditioning about sex and gender, just to understand a character and a world that has neither. That, for me, is the very definition of "speculative fiction." And it is hard.

No pun intended.

Final Grade: B+. Lots to like in this book, and it's challenging without being boring. But it's essentially a buddy story, so people who go into it expecting to see advances in technology or sweeping societal changes may be put off by the intimate nature of the plot.

Sunday, December 1, 2013

True crime: Columbine

Let's just pretend that four month break never happened.

To celebrate the month of October, I checked out a bunch of true crime books from the Brooklyn Public Library. I wanted to be scared about things that could actually happen to me instead of zombies.

The first book I read was "Columbine," by Dave Cullen (2009). The 1999 massacre at Columbine High.School in Colorado was the first major media event of my life. That sounds a little sick, like it was my first Superbowl or Macy's Thanksgiving Parade, but it's true. It was the first news story I ever noticed, because it was about people in my age group (or slightly older, I was in middle school). So much of the follow-up commentary was about people like me, what we were doing, and how we were feeling

Reading this book, I remembered what we all "knew" about Columbine. The shooters were bullied loners; they were in a gang called the Trenchcoat Mafia; they were after jocks, minorities, homosexuals, and/or Christians; they could have been helped if only they'd been discovered earlier. The whole thing turned into this juicy morality tale about the importance of early intervention in the lives of troubled teens, and it was a satisfying enough narrative that it remains the accepted explanation of the Columbine Massacre even though it's almost entirely wrong.

The truth is more mundane than the accepted tale of fragile young men pushed to the breaking point by a cold, uncaring society. Society had actually poured a lot of effort into the two. Both Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold were in court-ordered therapy for committing a string of petty thefts and vandalism in the years leading up to the massacre. They had therapists, doctors, parole officers, medication, stable home lives, and a strong network of friends and co-workers. They weren't loners, they weren't unpopular, they didn't hate jocks, and they weren't bullied. "Trenchcoat Mafia," one of the most lurid and compelling parts of the story as it broke, was a nickname given to a group of kids at Columbine the year earlier. The term had fallen out of use by the spring of 1999, and anyway, neither of the shooters were part of it to begin with.

What actually happened is that Harris was a full-blown psychopath. The efforts of his parents and doctors to turn him into a caring, productive member of society either amused him or infuriated him, and he felt no remorse or empathy for the people he hurt or killed. He was a real-life Joker who just wanted to watch the world burn.

Klebold was depressed, suicidal, and obsessed with a girl who never seemed to have spoken to him outside his own mind. His motivation is a little harder to figure out--how much of his involvement was due to manipulation by a brilliant, charming psychopath, and how much of it was just his own desire to die and take as many people with him as he went down?

I can't recommend this book enough. It's an incredibly compelling story to begin with: an in-depth look at one of the most shocking events of 20th century America. But when you come into it thinking you already know everything there is to know about the Columbine Massacre, like I did, you come away with a new awareness of the power of the media. We 21st century folks are familiar with the 24-hour media spin cycle, but in a way, Columbine is where that all began. (It was, for example, the first time emergency response crews had to deal with victims still inside the building using cell phones, which seems like a no-brainer now but was so radical at the time that it literally changed the rule book for emergency crews.)

Final Grade: A.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Comics Review: "The Sandman: A Game of You"

Summer doesn't end until the autumn equinox, so technically there's still time to finish my Sandman retrospective. There's still time!

As always, SPOILERS abound!

The thing about "The Sandman" is that you start reading it and you think, "Wow, this is amazing." And then you go on reading it and think, "No, that wasn't amazing, this is amazing, I didn't know what amazing was when I said that first bit was amazing." And then, "What was I thinking?! I could beat my Past Self with a stout rod, THIS is the true meaning of amazing."

Then you get to "A Game of You" and it's like the word "amazing" has crawled off the page, spanked you in a firm but loving manner, given you head, and made you lasagna and a martini.

I feel a little bad about grading "The Doll's House" so harshly now. The events in it were clearly important because the series keeps circling back to them, first in "Season of Mists" and now in "A Game of You." It makes me look at "The Doll's House" a little differently, knowing that it was where the series got off the ground in terms of the long narrative. I still think "The Doll's House" is the weakest of the bunch, but I find I don't mind as much that Dream Vortex was so poorly explained, or that the main character was so flat and uninteresting compared to the side characters.

This week's outing, volume 5 of "The Sandman," takes one of those side characters and explores in depth what the Vortex did to her life, both sleeping and waking. In "The Doll's House," Barbie was happily if creepily married to a man named Ken, and in her dreams, she was Princess Barbara, ruler-goddess of a fantasy land under siege by a mysterious evil force known as the Cuckoo. Barbie's encounter with the Vortex leaves her with neither brand-name approved husband nor princess fantasy world. She's divorced, living in a crappy studio apartment in New York, and entirely unable to dream. Her absence has left her fantasy land and its inhabitants without a princess and at the mercy of the Cuckoo.

"A Game of You" opens with some of these inhabitants discussing Princess Barbie's long absence. Her closest companion, a large dog-like creature named Martin Tenbones, decides to go to the real world to find her again. He uses a dream-stone, the Porpentine ( a close relative, as it were, of Dream's ruby dream-stone from "Preludes and Nocturnes) to leave the Dreaming and come to Manhattan, but is quickly cut down by the NYPD. With his dying breath, he passes the Porpentine off to his beloved princess and begs her to save the land from the Cuckoo and destruction.

This is one of the story arcs in which Dream himself doesn't appear much. When Martin Tenbones passes from the Dreaming to the waking world, Dream coldly observes that Barbie's fantasy land, a distant dream-island known as a "skerry," is dying and that he won't do anything about it. That's what skerries do, they live and they die, and this is a story about one's death.

That sounds depressing. And it is. "A Game of You" is the saddest story in the "Sandman" universe. I'd even place it higher in tear-jerk factor than "Brief Lives" and "The Kindly Ones," because at least those stories concern sad events that matter in grand scheme of the universe. "A Game of You" is a tragedy that takes place on the margins of the everything, and its characters are rejects from mainstream society whose lives (and deaths) only matter to a very few other insignificant people. Unlike "A Doll's House," in which our main character is very special and immensely powerful, but just doesn't know it yet, "A Game of You" is about people who will never be special and realize over the course of the story just how un-special they really are.

It's dark stuff.

And it is phenomenal.

"A Game of You" is arguably the best "The Sandman" has to offer. It's not my personal favorite, but objectively, this is the best piece of literature in the bunch. It's meticulously plotted and paced, it's characters live and breathe from their very first panels, and it illuminates better than a lot of other storylines what the Dreaming is, who goes there, and why.

The power of the Porpentine enables--or forces--Barbie to return to her dream-land, but Martin Tenbones wasn't the only person who knew how to find her. An agent of the Cuckoo, a man with a chest full of crows named George (the man is named George, not the crows), has been living upstairs from Barbie in New York and monitoring her. When he sees that she has the Porpentine, he cuts open his chest and sends the crows out to menace the neighbors, giving them horrible nightmares in the hopes that they will destroy the Porpentine in order to stop the bad dreams.

I said a couple of review back that "The Sandman" veered away from horror after "Calliope," but I think I spoke too soon. The nightmares the crows give Barbie's neighbors and friends are some of the creepiest images in the series. Barbie's best friend Wanda is kidnapped by comic books characters and threatened with saws and scalpels in a Bizarro-universe hospital; neighbor Foxglove is menaced by her old girlfriend Judy, who we last saw stabbing her own eyes out in the diner slaughter sequence from "Preludes and Nocturnes";  Foxglove's current girlfriend Hazel, who fears she may be pregnant from a drunken one-night stand with a gay man, dreams of a corpse-baby who comes to life to eat her; and neighbor Thessaly--well, she makes her dream-crow burst into flames by looking at it, and then she goes upstairs to murder George with a bread knife.

One of these people is not like the other.

Because I'm a writer and not an artist, I tend not to talk much about the artwork in "The Sandman," but I want to pause here and take a moment to acknowledge the art of "A Game of You." Shawn McManus drew all but one of the issues, and his style is strikingly different from the other "Sandman" artists up to this point. One the one hand, it's a little more cartoony than say, Mike Dringenberg, who did a lot of the early issues and "Season of Mists," but it has this amazing clarity to it that you don't often get even these days in mainstream comics.

You can really see it in the faces of the characters. In superhero comics, often the only way to tell people apart is their hair and costume; the faces and bodies all look the same, especially the female characters, which may as well be traced from a Hustler magazine for all the variety the artists give them. But in "A Game of You," the faces not only look different, they look distinctive. In the last issue, Barbie meets Wanda's family and you can actually tell that they're all related. This may not seem like that great a feat, but as someone who reads a lot of comic books, I can tell you that it is unusual and rare to see related characters actually look like each other without all looking the same.

As long as I'm talking about art, I have to retract my earlier comment that "The Doll's House" has the worst coloring ever, and shift that comment over to the inking in "Sandman" issue 34, chapter 3 of "A Game of You." Colleen Doran took over for McManus for this issue, and if you look at her original pages, they're great. But George Pratt came along to ink the pages and it came out looking like shit. The artwork was so bad that when DC released the Absolute Sandman editions, issue 34 was replaced with  Doran's original artwork that she re-inked herself.
Good art.
I don't own that edition, so  I'm stuck with the version that both Doran and Gaiman hated.
Shitty art. The more you know.

There's your comics industry gossip for the day! Back to the story.

Thessaly is an immortal witch who tears George's face off his dead body, nails it to the wall of his apartment, and makes him reveal all he knows about the Cuckoo. She decides to go into Barbie's dream and kill the Cuckoo, not because Barbie may die if she doesn't, but because you don't get to be an immortal by letting people push you around. To get to the Dreaming, Thessaly pulls the moon down from the sky and forces it to let her, Foxglove and Hazel take the moon's road into Barbie's dream. The three of them get to go because they fulfill the maiden-mother-crone archetype. But Wanda has to stay behind in New York with the comatose Barbie and the face nailed to wall because only women can walk the moon's road and Wanda was born a man.

Imagine, if you will, being a thirteen-year-old girl. (Pick your own, though, don't imagine being me, I was me, nobody else gets to be.) Imagine being thirteen in a small, fairly religious community with rigid ideas about gender and a streak of anti-intellectualism. In other words, imagine being thirteen in the United States of America. And you're reading a book in which all the main characters are women, two are gay, one is transgendered, one is a witch, and they're all trying to defeat a creature who exploits the angst little girls feel as they mature and become aware of the limitations imposed on them by society simply because they are female. 

In feminist circles, this is known as the "click" moment, when sexism ceases to be an abstract concept and is recognized as something that affects you as an individual. The political becomes personal.

I'm not gay, or transgendered, or particularly witch-like, although I did go through a goth phase after reading "The Sandman." It's a bad look for the tropics, Google "sweaty goths" and you'll see what I mean. But this was the first media representation of gay and transgendered people I encountered that treated them as individuals, with lives and stories that were just as important as that of our White Male Protagonist, Dream.

This was also the first time I realized why it's so important for people to see themselves reflected in the stories they consume, not in an abstract analyze-this-piece-for-symbolism way, but in an explicit this-is-the-point-of-the-story way. All of "The Sandman" is about the importance of stories: the stories we tell others, the stories we tell ourselves, and the stories we live without being aware that we are doing so. "A Game of You" in particular is about the stories that sustain us, sometimes for years, but must nevertheless come to an end. Who are we, both with and without these stories? How do the stories we tell about ourselves create our identities? And how can we learn to move on when we can't move back?

We're still only about half-way through the story. This shit is dense. 

Thessaly, Foxglove and Hazel are walking the moon's road; Wanda watches over Barbie's body in New York and chats with George's dead face; and in the dream-land, Barbie has been betrayed by one of her friends and is captured by the Cuckoo. The Cuckoo, as it turns out, takes the form of a ten-year-old Barbie and rules the land from Barbie's childhood home. She takes Barbie on a tour of the house and weaves a spell with her voice, explaining who she is, who Barbie is, and by the way Barbie and the land need to die now if that's all right with her.

The Cuckoo was able to take up residence in Barbie's dreams because of Barbie's deep need for escape from the boredom of her waking life. Her parents wanted her to be a "little lady" and discouraged her from reading superhero comics or playing with boys, so she created a dream based on fantasy books and populated it with living versions of her toys. She became a princess, which is pretty much the only fantasy little girls are allowed to have, and in this fantasy, the Cuckoo was both her mortal enemy but also an integral part of the story. When Barbie lost her dreams due to Rose Walker's Vortexing, the Cuckoo was unable to fly away and go to lay Cuckoo eggs in the minds of other imaginative little girls, and now the only thing that will free her is the destruction of the skerry, which was once her cradle but is now her prison.

So Barbie destroys her dream.
Dream helps. A little.
The ending of "A Game of You" is a huge bummer, I'm not going to lie. Everyone one of Barbie's beloved dream-toy-friends dies, her fantasy land dies, and the Cuckoo flies away unscathed. The women on the moon's road show up too late to stop any of it, so not only was their journey in vain, but when Thessaly drew down the moon to get them to Barbie, the brief absence of the moon in the sky caused a hurricane in New York City (which is eerily prescient, I have to say). Dream shows up and offers Barbie a single wish, which she uses to get herself and the other women back home to New York, but when they get there, the hurricane has completely destroyed their building and everything in it.

And Wanda is dead.

The last issue of this story arc is Barbie attending Wanda's funeral in Kansas. She's homeless, broke from spending the last of her cash on a bus ticket to the funeral, and Wanda's family doesn't even want her there. She sits on the edge of Wanda's grave for a while, talking to her about the secret world's that must exist inside of everyone, and as she leaves, she uses a tube of lipstick to write "WANDA" on the headstone over her friend's (male) birth name. The story ends with Barbie at the bus stop after the funeral, remembering a dream she had of Wanda and Death smiling and waving good-bye to her.

I cried the first time I read it. I cried this time. This is a story that makes you have deep, complex feelings, and makes you think hard about big, scary things. It never stops being incredibly sad and beautiful at the same time, how a person can be irrevocably altered on the inside and yet remain the same on the outside; how people struggle to make their insides match their outsides, so other people will look at a person and see the true self instead of the self that came with birth and other un-asked-for circumstances; how people leave and die for reasons no one can understand, because the beings in charge of those kinds of things are kind of assholes and don't like to think about the terror and anguish us mere mortals live in because of them. (Seriously, Thessaly, way to be a fucking asshole about the whole thing.)

I think that's why I consider "A Game of You" to be the best of the bunch: because it takes these huge, frightening concepts and arranges them in such a way that not only do you have to look at them, but you want to look at them. Most of us don't want to think about how we've changed or how we will change as we get closer to death. Most of us don't like to think about death. But "A Game of You" asks you to look at those things, not because the story wants you to be uncomfortable, but because it wants you to be comfortable. It wants to show you that they aren't such bad things to think about, that this whole being alive thing is not as scary as it seems, though that doesn't mean it doesn't matter. It matters deeply, and that's why you need to look at it.

I don't know, it's a little hard to describe. I'm pretty sure you could read the book yourself in the time it's taken you to read this long-ass review, and I've left out so much! I've left out all the references to "The Wizard of Oz," and what it means for both the kind of story Gaiman is writing AND the significance that story has within the gay community. I didn't touch on the controversy of Wanda's death and how some feel it perpetuates the "Bury the Gays" trope, which I feel is a valid criticism even if I don't necessarily agree with it.

But again, long-ass review. Read it yourself.

Final Grade: A+.

Saturday, August 17, 2013

Game of Thrones Special

I have to interrupt my "Sandman" comic retrospective because I've spent the last few weeks deep in a Game of Thrones hole. I found a copy of "A Clash of Kings," the second book in the series, in a community garden on Columbia Street, and after I read that, there was nothing for it but to read the rest.

The Game of Thrones series, more accurately known as "A Song of Ice and Fire" by Santa Claus-lookalike George R.R Martin, hit my radar as soon as the first advertisements for the television series went up in my subway station. I don't actually read a lot of fantasy, but there's only so long I could look at Sean Bean sitting on that chair made of swords at the Bergen Street F station before I had to know what all the fuss was about.
Advertising works.
Also, "Game of Thrones" is the only television show that almost everyone in my office watches, and Monday mornings were our GoT recap sessions. I had to read the entire series so I could always know what was coming and give smug spoilers on request. Thus ensuring my place in the office hierarchy as the insufferable nerd who gives way to much of a shit about interests normal people would be slightly ashamed of having.
No shame. Haters gonna hate.
The television show is great. And so are the books, as you might imagine. Even though there's umpty-zillion main characters and storylines, I think the books are best described as "readable." You get pulled into the world very quickly and easily, every character great and small feels fleshed out and real, and details about the society and history get doled out in manageable portions just when you need them.

While there are recognizable elements from the fantasy genre in "A Song of Ice and Fire"--recognizable to both die-hard fantasy nerds and to anyone who saw a Lord of the Rings movie once in the theater because it was raining and it was the only movie everyone in your family could agree on--the series is actually a subversion of fantasy tropes. When I describe ASOIAF to others, I say, "It's sword-and-sorcery, but heavy on the sword and light on the sorcery." It would be more accurate to call it something like "realistic fantasy," or "fantastical realism."

To be sure, all the familiar faces are there: kings, princesses, dragons, brave knights, gallant outlaws, swords with names and cursed castles. But ASOIAF takes the extra step of imagining a world where all of these things exist with ordinary human beings in a functioning, complex society, with politics, religion, social movements, and strained foreign relations. There came a point when I stopped viewing the characters from my own cultural perspective and began to view them from theirs, to see their society as they saw it, and that's when I knew that ASOIAF was a cut above most standard fantasy fare.

The scope of the series is massive--it takes place over several years, in several locations thousands of miles apart, and it's told from multiple characters' perspectives, so you can sometimes feel a bit overwhelmed with information. I've read the entire series twice now, and seen the television series from beginning to end twice, and I finally feel like I'm getting a good grasp of what's going on. But figuring out what's going on is half the fun of ASOIAF! A common refrain in the office is, "Wait, who is X again, what's their deal?" And we get to spend another ten minutes figuring out the characters and their relationships to one another. As the BF's father also says every time we see each other, "I don't understand anything that's going on, but I can't stop watching."

All that aside, ASOIAF is just a great story. It's about love, betrayal, and ambition. It's about nations at war, a world in peril, and rulers both good and bad struggling for power. But it's also got incest! Ice zombies! People dying in horrifically imaginative ways! And strong female characters!
You don't know about the adventures of the Strong Female Characters? Kate Beaton will school ya!
I'd recommend it to anyone who likes fantasy, politics and political intrigue, sweeping multi-generational family sagas, and epic war stories.

Also recommended to anxious flyers like myself. I really should have saved these books for my trip back to Hawaii this November. Five thousand pages of fantasy would have been the perfect distraction on my twelve hour flight.

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Comics Review: "The Sandman: Season of Mists"

There's a certain part of me that wishes I had never read "The Sandman."

Because if that were so, I could read it for the first time and have my mind blown all over again.

"Season of Mists," the fourth volume in the "Sandman" series, is my favorite. I love the shit out of this story. It's hard for me to even articulate why it's just so goddamn awesome. Can I just scan every page of the comic onto this page and you can read it yourself, and then at the end we can clap our hands and dance around and screech about how wonderful it is?

Quick google search confirms that's illegal. I guess I'll have to write the review. Oh, and even though it's been like, twenty years, SPOILERS below.

So remember back in "Preludes and Nocturnes" that Dream had to go to Hell and battle a demon to get back his helmet? While he was there, he ran into an old girlfriend he'd condemned to everlasting torture for reasons made clear in "The Doll's House." The woman, Nada, was a queen who fell in love with Dream. He loved her in return and offered her immortality, co-leadership of the Dreaming, deification, anything she wanted, if she would stay with him forever. But Nada refused him because mortals shouldn't get involved with the Endless (more about this in "Brief Lives," coming up in a couple weeks). She killed herself to end the relationship, and Dream sentenced her to Hell as punishment for rejecting him.

As Death says to him at the beginning of this story arc, "Condemning her to an eternity in Hell, just because she turned you down... that's a really shitty thing to do."

This is why big sisters are so great: they call you on your bullshit. I'm glad I've got one.

Speaking of families, meet the Endless! "Season of Mists" begins with an incredibly awkward family reunion in the garden of Destiny, the oldest Endless (say that five times fast). We met Destiny very briefly back in "Preludes," Death we know, and of course Dream; then there's the twins, Desire and Despair, who were both introduced in "The Doll's House"; one brother, called the Prodigal, is missing and won't be coming to the party; and for the first time, we meet the youngest of the Endless, sister Delirium.
I was Delirium for Halloween once. The hair dye all came out during apple bobbing.
She's the personification of mental illness and bad drug trips, and she really doesn't want to be here. None of the Endless siblings do, actually. There's a great moment when Destiny says everyone must have a lot to talk about, since it's been three hundred years since they were last together--and they all just stare at each other in silence. And then they start fighting.

Maybe they don't get along because they have too much influence over each other, in the sense that not even the Endless are exempt from the magical influence of the other Endless. When Dream tries to leave the party, Destiny won't let him because "that won't happen yet"; when Delirium makes butterflies to amuse herself, Desire makes the butterflies go into a candle flame, and Death takes them away. It must make them all very uneasy to be around each other, because it brings up uncomfortable questions of how much of what they think and do is based on their own choices, and how much is based on the influence of their family.

Dream gets especially pissed at Desire when Desire starts listing all of Dream's failed romantic relationships, and it's unclear if Dream is angry because he thinks his love life is none of Desire's damn business, or because he knows that his love life is exactly  Desire's business. Love is in Desire's job description, not Dream's. But Death reminds Dream that even if Desire is the reason all of his relationships end badly, Dream is still responsible for his own actions. He was the one who sentenced Nada to Hell, not Desire, and maybe instead of being angry at Desire for bringing it up, he should take a long, hard look at himself and the choices he made in his own life that bring him to this point.

Begin the Overarching Theme!

"Season of Mists" is about choices, specifically the question of what a person does when they find themselves in a mess of their own making. After Dream realizes that he's been a massive twatwaffle to Nada, he decides he needs to free her, even if it means facing Lucifer and all the hordes of Hell in combat. The last time Dream and Lucifer faced each other, Lucifer vowed to destroy him, so Dream is understandably nervous about going back to Hell. But when he gets there, he finds that Lucifer is sick of being the Devil and instead of fighting Dream, he's quit his job, closed up Hell, and is going to do something different with his life.

This is one of my favorite plot twists in fiction. We've just spent an entire issue building up to the confrontation between Dream and Lucifer. Dream has said good-bye to all the subjects in his realm, and even paid a special visit to his best friend Hob in case he can't make their next meeting in 2090, so certain is he of either defeat or imprisonment in Hell. Lucifer, meanwhile, is disturbingly excited that Dream is coming, and makes an announcement to his own realm that in all the ten billion years of Hell's existence, no one has seen anything like what's coming.

And then Dream gets to Hell and Lucifer tells him, "I've quit." No grand battle, no clash of immortals, just an empty Hell and a fallen angel who is tired of his job. Fucking brilliant.
Dream and Lucifer walk around Hell while Lucifer locks up the last few gates and talks about the circumstances that led him to this point. He speculates on whether or not he rebelled against God because he wanted to, or because it was part of God's plan to have a fallen angel rule a realm that was "Heaven's dark reflection." But whether it was free will or destiny that put him in Hell, he realizes that he himself is the only thing keeping him in Hell, and with that realization, he decides to just walk away. He's the second-most powerful being in the whole of creation--who's going to stop him?

Almost as an afterthought, Lucifer gives the key to Hell to Dream, barely concealing his glee as he does so. "Perhaps it will destroy you, and perhaps it won't. But I doubt it will make your life any easier."

Mic drop. Lucifer out.

Immediately, realms across the cosmos spring into action. Everyone, from the gods of Asgard, ancient Egypt and Shinto Japan, to the agents of Chaos, Order and Faerie, to the displaced demons who served under Lucifer, wants that key. They all gather at the gates of Dream's palace, demanding entrance and an answer to the question of what will happen to Hell now that Lucifer is gone.

Whew, this is getting intense. Let's check in with all of the dead people who were kicked out of Hell.

The one-shot in the middle of this story arc is about a boy named Charles, alone in his boarding school over the holidays until all of the dead schoolchildren and headmasters come out of Hell and take over the school. The dead make it into a nasty place of repetitive self-punishment, and Charles concludes after his own death that "Hell is something you carry around with you."

It's interesting to pause and get a mortal's perspective on this cosmic upheaval, as the rest of "Season of Mists" is the gods, angels and demons vying for possession of Hell. They're squabbling, bribing, begging, and threatening each other--and Dream especially--for something that wasn't really created for them. It's "a place for dead mortals to punish themselves," as Lucifer says, but the mortals don't have any voice in the proceedings. Nor does it really seem like they need one; if mortals can't punish themselves in Hell, it seems they'll do it wherever they end up--that Hell is a state of mind brought on by guilt, shame and desire for punishment for perceived transgressions.

But Hell is also a very real place in the "Sandman" universe, which brings up some tough questions about this whole "choices and free will" theme "Season of Mists" explores. Yes, Lucifer can leave Hell--but he can't go back to Heaven, and when he leaves Hell he upsets the balance of the universe, leaving a mess someone else has to clean up. And young Charles can leave the school grounds for the wide world--but he has to die first in order to gain his freedom. Dream can free Nada from her prison--the story even implies that she could have freed herself if she stopped blaming him for her situation--but he had to upend the balance of the universe to do it.

Choices cut both ways. You can walk away from a situation at any time, but the situation will still be there, waiting for either you or someone else to come along and see it through to the end. Hell didn't just end when Lucifer walked away. He gave Hell to Dream, because Lucifer is an asshole and knew that he was leaving Dream to clean up the biggest metaphysical clusterfuck since Lucifer rebelled against God. We exists in a universe of consequences, not a universe of free will unchecked by laws and reactions.

So what happens in the end? God sends two angels to take back the key to Hell and Dream is happy enough to give the rule of Hell back to the entity who created it--even if the angels are less than thrilled to have such a task forced on them. The demon Azazel, who had hoped to rule Hell itself, tells Dream that it will consume Nada's soul to punish him for giving the key to the angels.

Here's another great twist in the story. Thus far in "The Sandman," Dream has feared the power of Hell. In "Preludes and Nocturnes," Dream has to bluff his way to Lucifer's throne room, pretending to have more power than he does, and then he has fight a demon in fair combat to get his helmet back because he doesn't have authority to just demand its return. The second issue of the "Season of Mists" story arc is Dream going around say good-bye to everyone because he isn't sure he'll make it back from Hell alive, and in the third issue he tells Lucifer to his face that he's afraid of Lucifer's power.

But get him on his home turf and threaten the woman he swore to save?
Dream traps the demon in a bottle. Forever.

Up to this point in "The Sandman," Dream hasn't been portrayed as an especially powerful individual. The series begins with him imprisoned by hedge wizards by seventy years, and both "Preludes and Nocturnes" and "The Doll's House" stress the fragility of his realm, especially for the sleeping humans therein. He's a hard-working and responsible individual, much like his sister, Death; and very unlike his sibling Desire or his foe Lucifer, who have the air of effortless achievement about them at all times.

What I love about the resolution of this storyline is that it shows how Dream could, if he wanted, fuck with people beyond all comprehension. He could drive everyone and everything who ever fell asleep completely insane; he could erase imagination and stories from the world; he could make it so no one ever slept again. But he doesn't do anything of these things. He fashions a very orderly realm, with bureaucracy and employees, and doesn't really throw his weight around like he could.

Except with those who wound his pride, like Nada. He's not above using his powers to horribly punish those who hurt him on a personal level, and then immediately absolves himself of guilt by falling back on his status as the Dreamlord to justify his actions. He had to punish Nada, because she was just a mortal and not an equal of the Endless. He's gotten better since the series began. Comparing the present-day storylines to the flashbacks, we see him trying to rectify his mistakes and be kinder to those around him. He helps Calliope gain her freedom, he admits to Hob Gadling that they're friends (oh the bro-loves!), he tells the cat-prophet how to gain freedom for her and her people--you can really see the freedom-from-imprisonment theme growing out of Dream's experiences in "Preludes and Nocturnes"--and he frees Nada.

After she schools him on his self-righteous attitude, though, because at first he can't even bring himself to admit to her face that he shouldn't have been such a dick. Change comes hard, y'all.

Oh, and Dream frees Loki at the end of "Season of Mists"! If you don't know your Norse myths, Loki is a god of mischief who was deemed too dangerous to be in the world, so Odin imprisoned him in a cave under the earth, only to be released when Ragnarok (the apocalypse) occurred. Now he's just sort of wandering around, Loki-ing it up. If you've seen "The Avengers," you know this can only end badly.
Do not read "Sandman" expecting Loki to look this good.

So that's "Season of Mists." Lots of good, complex themes, a ripping good storyline, great art, callbacks to earlier issues, and foreshadowing galore! For example, the cat goddess Bast knows where Dream's missing brother can be found. Interesting plot development, that.

Final Grade: A+.

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Comics Review: "The Sandman: Dream Country"

Even though I'm reviewing Neil Gaiman's "The Sandman" in collected volumes, it's worth noting that "The Sandman" wasn't meant to be read like this. It was originally published as single issues of comics, not as books/graphic novels, and I've been wondering lately if I'm doing the body of work a disservice by treating it like all my other book reviews instead of going issue by issue.

However, I'm going to stick with this format because "The Sandman"--and comic books in general, actually--are discussed among fans in collective terms. People speak about the Civil War story arc in Marvel Comics; or Warren Ellis's run on "Hellblazer": or Grant Morrison's multi-title "Batman" saga. Comics are published as single issues, but they're also published sequentially as multi-part story arcs. And while readers of comics historically didn't have the option of reading anything but single issues, today's comics readers rely as much  on collected editions of story arcs as they do on single issues for consumption of the material.

Digital distribution has further blurred the lines between the single issue and the collected arcs, as you have an option of purchasing one issue at a time, getting a whole arc, or even mixing and matching to create your own narrative interpretation of a work. Comixology, for example, lets you choose to read your comics by publication history, a development I'm looking forward to discussing when I get up to "Fables and Reflections."

That said, not all issues of comics are part of story arcs. In the biz, we call these "one shots." A one shot is basically meant to be viewed as short story rather than a chapter in a novel. "Dream Country" is a collection of four "Sandman" one shots, issues 17 to 20 if you're keeping track: "Calliope," "Dream of a Thousand Cats," "A Midsummer Night's Dream," and "Facade."

I was only five when these issues were hitting the racks in stores, but I can imagine how exciting it must have been to scurry on down to the local comic book shop, pick up an issue of "Sandman" and get one of these. Each of them is a gem. "Dream of a Thousand Cats" is my favorite "Sandman" story, and "A Midsummer Night's Dream" won a World Fantasy Award for short fiction in 1991 (more on that later). I don't want to say that "this is where Sandman got good," because again, it's all better than most anything else in the medium. But I do think that the stories in "Dream Country" are where "Sandman" became consistently brilliant. They hit a high note that Gaiman & Co. sustained until the very end of the series' run.

And a note about Gaiman's "& Co." I really like the edition of "Dream Country" I have because it has a table of contents that lists the different artists for each of the issues, which my editions of "Preludes and Nocturnes" and "The Doll's House" don't do. "The Sandman" became known for its wide variety of artists and styles, but sometimes it's surprisingly difficult to discern who drew which issue, especially if you have the older collected editions. I have a mix of old and new in my collection, and it's irritating to have to squint at the fine print in the copyright info to find out who drew what. Table of contents is the way to go.

Let's break it down.

"Calliope" is about writers and where they get their ideas. Richard Madoc gets his inspiration from the muse Calliope, who he keeps as a sex slave locked in his attic. Several years pass. He wins critical acclaim, audience love, money beyond his wildest dreams, all from raping and abusing the mythological goddess of epic poetry. Dream eventually shows up to rescue her, because they were once lovers and even had a son together, and also because he had just been imprisoned for several decades and knows how awful it is. When Madoc refuses to release Calliope, Dream curses him with so many different ideas for stories that Madoc goes insane. Madoc frees Calliope to make the ideas stop torturing him, leaving him a shattered, idea-less shell of a man.

One aspect of "The Sandman" that waned as the series progressed was its horror element, and I think this story was the last one you could categorically define as "horrific." "Preludes and Nocturnes" had the visit to Hell and the diner slaughter, and "The Doll's House" had the serial killer convention. But after "Calliope," though "Sandman" was frequently scary in the psychological sense, it never really veered back into true "Hellblazer"/Clive Barker territory. And even "Calliope" resonates more for its quieter moments, like when Dream and Calliope say good-bye at the end, than for images like this:
He had no pen or paper. He wrote his ideas on a brick wall with his fingertips.
"Calliope" is a great story, and it's the first time Gaiman references Dream's son. That's going to be important later on.

What can I say about "Dream of a Thousand Cats"? I love cats. I love "The Sandman." I love that "The Sandman" did a story about cats that did for cats what "Watership Down" did for rabbits.
For death! And the world ending!
"Thousand Cats" is another frame story that features Dream as a supporting character, like "Tales from the Sand." A group of suburban housecats gather in a graveyard to hear a cat-prophet preach. The Prophet tells a story about her former life as a pampered housecat, when she was just like all of them. Her owners drown her newborn kittens in a pond because she got pregnant by a stray and the owners wanted to breed her with another purebred. She goes to the Dreaming and meets with the Cat of Dreams for guidance and advice. He tells her a story about the former Age of Cats, when cats were the size of humans and hunted little cat-sized humans in their gardens for sport.
Good times.
But the Age ended when one of the humans told the rest to dream of a world in which they were the dominant species, and one day everyone awoke to the world that we know now, where cats are just our little pets and humans rule the world. Even worse, the humans had dreamed it so that there never was an Age of Cats. They had altered reality to retcon the cat kingdom out of existence, because such is the power of a shared dream.

The Cat of Dreams tells the Prophet to spread the word among cat-kind that if they can share a dream, they can bring about the Age of Cats again. So she walks the world, telling cats to dream of a better reality, in the hope that enough of them will dream one night and they will all awake in the Golden Age again. Most of the housecats in the graveyard scoff at her story as just an entertaining bit of nonsense from a famous crazy-cat-person, but one cat in the crowd... well:
I'm crying. You can't see it, but I'm literally crying as I post this.
I love the shit out of this story. My friend R has often bemoaned the portrayal of cats in fiction, especially children's fiction, because they're almost always villains, enemies of the truly heroic animals, or sniveling, cowardly assholes ("Watership Down," "The Secret of NIMH," "Cinderella," "Homeward Bound"). This is one of the few portrayals of cats in fiction as heroes, and the fact that the Prophet is female is just icing on the cake for me.

In terms of where it fits into the "Sandman" mythos, it's a great example of what the series is getting at when it talks about the power of dreams. Dream as a character has his own set of powers, and while it's interesting to spend time with him and watch him struggle and scheme, I find "Sandman" more interesting for how Dream's existence affects those around him. This issue is the beginning of the ongoing discussion in the series: why are stories important? What do stories mean for the tellers of the tale, and for those who listen?

The discussion continues in "A Midsummer Night's Dream," which has one of my favorite conceits for a story ever: William Shakespeare and his actors put on "A Midsummer Night's Dream" for the fairies referenced in the play.
So no pressure or anything.
Will entered into an agreement with Dream, wherein Dream will give him the ability to become the greatest storyteller in the English language, and in return Will will write two plays specifically for Dream. One is "A Midsummer Night's Dream," and the other (which we don't learn until the end of the "Sandman" series) is "The Tempest."

This is the most famous issue of "The Sandman," because it won the World Fantasy Award for short fiction and was the first comic book to do so. Now, the story goes that after "Midsummer" won the award, the World Fantasy Award rules were amended so that comic books were ineligible to even be nominated in that category. I've read this on the Internet and even in some very well-regarded scholarly works (yes, scholars discuss "The Sandman," what of it?). It makes a great story because it shows how comic books are actual works of art but are still relegated to a lesser status by snobs who are out of touch with the zeitgeist.

And it's not true.

From the World Fantasy Award website:
All Fantasy is eligible, High fantasy, horror, sword & sorcery, supernatural, children's and YA books, and beyond.
Comics are eligible in the Special Award Professional category. We never made a change in the rules. 
Italicization theirs. I think they got sick of angry "Sandman" fans  bombarding them with requests to make comics eligible for regular awards again. I gather that it was like the year when "Beauty and the Beast" was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Picture. It wasn't that there was any specific rule preventing animated films from getting nominated for Best Picture, it just hadn't ever happened before.

I'm not arguing that comic books aren't still kind of pushed into this artistic ghetto and sneered at by intellectual types. That totally happens. But comics fans have got to stop repeating this story about the World Fantasy Awards changing their rules to exclude comic books in the wake of the "Midsummer" win, because it's not true, and false claims hurt the cause more than they help it.

Now I've had to spend all that time talking about the politics surrounding the story without getting to the story itself. How very meta.

So, the story--do you like Shakespeare? Because there's a lot of Shakespeare dialog in this story. I have to confess that I enjoy Shakespeare when it's being performed, but I can't seem to follow it so well on the page, and I tend to gloss over the parts of this story that are the actors performing "Midsummer." However, what I do really enjoy in this play is the relationship between Will and his son, Hamnet, who's been feeling rather neglected since his father made a pact with the immortal anthropomorphic manifestation of dreams. Hamnet is traveling with Will and the theater troupe so that father and son can become closer, but all Will cares about is his stories. Hamnet even jokes with one of the players that if he died, his father would just make a play out of it.

That's on one side of the curtain. On the other side, the audience side, the fairies and Dream enjoy the night's entertainment. Some common fairies in the back row provide a bit of comic relief, as one of them can't follow the story and thinks Dream just brought the troupe there to be the fairies' dinner. Robin Goodfellow, called the Puck, is so excited by the play that he puts the human player to sleep and takes his place on stage. King Auberon gives a sack of gold coins to the head actor, which of course turn into dead leaves when the sun rises because fairies are assholes. And Queen Titania gives an apple to Hamnet while telling him how great life is in her kingdom, an interaction Will ignores because he's too busy watching his own play.

If you know a bit more than the average person about the life and works of Shakespeare, you may get a chill watching Hamnet and Titania together. In the play "Midsummer," one of the early plot points is that Titania adopts a human child. Hamnet plays this part in the comic's version of "Midsummer." And in real life, William Shakespeare did have a son named Hamnet who tragically died when he was just eleven years old. The implication in Gaiman's "Midsummer" is that Hamnet was stolen by the fairies, because again, fairies are assholes.

One more significant development in "Midsummer." Dream has a rather one-sided conversation with Titania, who was maybe his lover at one point (implied rather than stated). He's having doubts about the pact he made with Will, a crisis on conscience in the wake of gifting the man with stories. Dream made the pact because he wanted the old stories to live on through the ages, which is a high priority from Dream's perspective--he has a job to do as the Prince of Stories and he's going to do it to the best of his abilities. But he didn't tell Will what such a gift would cost him and Will didn't bother to ask, which is pretty typical of mortals. Not just because mortals are short-sighted, but because (as Dream fears) they wouldn't understand the costs even if they were told. Their minds aren't meant to comprehend someone like Dream.

It's a rare moment when Dream ponders his impact on people's lives and suddenly doubts that what he does is right and fair. Dream isn't usually a character who looks to the past or thinks very deeply about the decisions he makes. He's been doing this job for a long time. He knows what he's doing, thank you very much, and he will not be criticized by those who think they know better just because a couple of mortals get trampled along the way.

This is going to come back around in a big way in the next volume, "Season of Mists." Get ready.

Okay, I've spent a decent amount of time talking about the most famous (and perhaps best) issue of "Sandman." I have more to say, but there's one last story in "Dream Country" to get through, so let's move on to "Façade."

Dream isn't in this story at all. It's about a day in the life of Urania Blackwell, also known as Element Girl, a DC comics C-list superhero who now lives as a miserable shut-in because she's too ashamed to show her hideously misshapen face and body to the world. All she wants to do is die, but she's basically indestructible and can't think of any method of death that would actually destroy her.

So Dream's sister Death comes by and gives her a bit of good advice, leading to possibly the only happy ending in fiction caused by the main character's successful suicide.

It's weird to read this story right after "Midsummer." "Midsummer" is so grand and weighty, stuffed full of important historical and mythological personalities. "Façade," by contrast, is a much slower, more intimate story about an insignificant nobody dying alone in a filthy studio apartment. But I feel the two stories are thematically connected and actually flow quite well together.

First, they are both about immortality. Will enters into a pact with Dream so that his stories may live forever; and Urania enters into a pact with Ra, the Egyptian sun god, so that she too can live forever. Neither Will nor Urania understand the true costs of their pacts at first, but one of the immediate consequences in alienation. They are no longer ordinary mortals, they are special. Will becomes distant from his family in order to focus on his work, and Urania cuts herself off from the world entirely.

(An aside: I'm not familiar with the character of Element Girl in the regular DC comics, so I don't know why she isn't out there fighting crime like a regular superhero. It isn't explained in this story, and I have to assume that she just didn't have the temperament for it, as she seems like a gentle soul who maybe cracked under the pressures of crime-fighting, but that's pure speculation on my part.)

Another way these stories are connected is that both are about loss. Dream commissions "Midsummer" from Will because the fairies aren't going to visit Earth anymore, and Dream doesn't want their contributions to the world to be lost or forgotten. One consequence of this is that Will loses his son twice over, once because he neglects the boy to write the play, and then again when Hamnet dies/is taken by the fairies. When Urania becomes Element Girl, she loses her humanity and any hope for a normal life, and most of her story is her dealing with that loss.

However, what makes "Façade" special is that Urania's story has Death in it instead of Dream, both in the literal and metaphorical sense. Dream as an entity is all about stories, and Urania's story has ended. Nothing happens to her and nothing ever will, so she's beyond Dream's notice and influence. The only left for her is the end. She needs to meet her death, and Death. 

Death, when she comes, tells Urania that in the end, all things die, and Death is there to meet all of them at the end. Again, this is in contrast to Dream, who is rather discriminating about those he meets directly, and very choosy about who gets his special attention. But whether you're a mortal, a god, or a galaxy, Death is there for you. But not in an ominous way, like "there's no where to hide"; more like "you don't have to go through this alone." Death holds Urania when she cries, comforts her about her miserable wreck of a life, and mediates between Ra and Urania so the former can release the latter from her immortal existence. She's quite friendly, this Death, and just wants you to get where you're going. 

It's quite a feat of narrative to end a story with a suicide and still leave the reader feeling uplifted. You don't hear about "Façade" very much in "Sandman" fandom (I imagine it comes up more among fans of the Death spin-off series), but it's as good and profound as anything else we'll see moving forward.

Final Grade: A. It's the shortest of the "Sandman" volumes, but "Dream Country" is a winner all the way around.

Next time: volume 4, "Season of Mists." We return to Hell.