Neil Gaiman, Fragile Things: Short Fictions and Wonders (William Morrow, 2006)

The better part of a decade after his last collection of bits and bobs, Smoke and Mirrors, Neil Gaiman brings us Fragile Things, a delightful new assortment of prose and poetry. The content, far from being fragile, (that's left to the cover art, with its robin's egg, butterfly, snowflake and seashell in soft, muted tones), is a solid collection of just over thirty wonders of the sort that Gaiman excels at.

Gaiman is fond of reaching out to his audience, and here he's provided a thorough introduction -- which includes not just the provenance for each story, but a bonus story hidden within a story intro -- but also an amusing, though quite sincere, letter directed to booksellers about the difficult nature of selling one-author short story collections. Don't skip over them to get to the stories, particularly the intro, which is full of interesting tidbits.

Suffice it to say every item in Fragile Things is exquisite (Truly, there's nary a misstep or false note here.). With that understanding, I'll just mention a few standout gems to whet your appetite. First, while Gaiman admits freely in his introduction that he had originally intended to keep Fragile Things poetry-free, happily a few slipped through anyhow. The finest of these is "Instructions," a handy sort of how-to, should you find yourself smack dab in the middle of a fairy tale. Pay close attention and you should make it back out just fine!

And of the prose. . . .

Fragile Things' opening salvo is a rather unique literary homage. There are any number of Holmsian pastiches, and no doubt at least half as many Lovecraftian ones. But "A Study in Emerald" is assuredly the only short story I've read to combine both, let alone to do it so ably. Someone has offed a member of the English royal family – who are a wee bit different than their subjects – and Holmes is called in to solve the murder. He does, of course, for Holmes is Holmes no matter the setting, but the joy of this story is not so much the mystery solving, but the alternate London Gaiman has crafted from these two authors' milieu.

Hands down, "Bitter Grounds" is my favourite tale of the collection. Gaiman's seamless blend of the everyday with the out-and-out surreal as the protagonist chucks his normal life and identity for a one-way cross-country road trip that terminates in pre-Katrina New Orleans at an anthropological conference (and involves quasi-mythical young girls who just might be zombie slaves for coffee) is evocative of Japanese author Haruki Murakami at his finest. Undeniably enchanting.

"Keepsakes and Treasures" introduces two characters, Smith and Mr. Alice, who I suspect we will hear more from in the future (in fact, they're in two stories in this collection). They're not precisely pleasant characters, but they are fascinating, and their idea of what comprises the titular items is assuredly a bit different from the average person, as the story bears out.

In "Harlequin Valentine," a Harlequin of old gives his thoroughly modern, and practical, Columbine his heart (literally) on Valentines Day, completely not expecting the turn of events that arises when she disposes of it in a rather . . . interesting fashion.

In the final story ofthe volume, "Monarch of the Glen," Gaiman brings back Smith and Mr. Alice for a repeat performance. They join another of his previous characters, Shadow, from American Gods for a novella set two years after the events of that novel. This time around, Shadow finds himself in Scotland during a chill summer, adrift and between jobs. Quite inadvertently, he finds himself caught up in a dangerous ritual far older than himself, thanks to these two fine gentlemen, and neither the folk of British old money nor the monsters of Nordic yore will be quite the same ever again.

As these offerings come from rather diverse sources -- CD liner notes, various other collections -- only the most voracious of Gaiman fans have likely read all of them before, so we are fortunate indeed Fragile Things has come our way.

[April Gutierrez]