fantasy and science fiction book reviewsThe Sandman (Vol. 4): Season of Mists by Neil Gaiman

SFF, fantasy literature, science fiction, horror, YA, and comic book and audiobook reviewsTHE SANDMAN (Vol. 4): Season of Mists collections issues 21 through 28 of Neil Gaiman’s masterpiece, and since THE SANDMAN, like most series, was a monthly, we should notice that by issue 21 Gaiman was wrapping up his second year on the title and well into his third year by issue 28. He had gained confidence in his writing, and he was getting comfortable working with different artists. He realized that THE SANDMAN wasn’t going to be taken from him at a moment’s notice. THE SANDMAN was just too successful to be cancelled. With that worry behind him, he could concentrate on making it the best series it could be over a period stretching out for as long as he wanted. The bigger problem would be arranging to have a successful comic stop where he wanted it to stop and to prevent other people from writing the stories that were rightfully his. He would eventually successfully get agreement on that as well, but for now, the stopping point was more than fifty issues into his future. With issue 21, he was settling in for the long haul, deciding how to play with his plot and characters now that he knew he had a lot of room with which to work. So, with great ambition, he set out to write what would become Season of the Mists, his first long story arc, consisting of eight issues, or roughly 200 pages of storytelling.

season of mists 1Season of Mists is near perfect and one of my favorite volumes in the series. The story arc has a solid beginning and a satisfying conclusion as a story on its own. And the first issue would make for a great read to introduce anybody to the world of THE SANDMAN. There are a few pages that describe each character in-depth, and I think they would be good to read before reading the entire series. We also get to see all but one of the siblings interact with the others, which reveals their characters in a concise, single scene. In issue 21, Destiny, walking in his garden, has a surprise visit — because he never peaks ahead in the Book of Fate that he carries with him. The grey ladies inform him that he must gather his siblings for an important meeting. Following instruction well, Destiny, as seriously dutiful as his brother Dream, calls each of his siblings to him except for the missing brother: First, he calls Death, and after asking that she dress more formally, he calls on Dream, Death’s less cheerful sibling, though the one of whom she is most fond. Then he calls on the hermaphroditic Desire; then Despair, Desire’s less talkative twin; and finally Delirium, who once was Delight. Once they are all gathered, the first such occasion in hundreds of years we are told, they begin to bicker because Desire likes to stir things up wherever it goes. Gaiman shows off his writing skills in this quick exchange, with each brief bit of dialogue revealing an essential quality of character:

Sandman (getting irritated): “I will leave now.”

Destiny: “That will not happen, yet.”

Death: “Aw, c’mon. Hang around for a little. What’s some lost time? We’ve got all the time there is. Have a grape.”

Delirium: “I lost some time once. It’s always in the last place you look for it.”

Sandman: “I do not want a grape.”

Desire: “I could make you want one.”

Sandman: “Careful, sibling.”

Desire: “I am Desire, am I not? That is what I am; that is what I do. I make things want things.”

Desire, knowing that it has gotten everybody on edge, pushes Dream off that edge by reminding him of Nada, a past lover who had the misfortune of not wanting to be with Dream forever (we’ve met Nada in two previous volumes). Dream condemned Nada to Hell to be tortured for an eternity. After getting angry at Desire, Dream walks outside to calm down, and Death follows him. Rather than take his side in his anger at Desire, tells Dream that Desire was right and that, when it comes to Nada, Dream acted in the wrong. Dream, who is very serious, values highly his sister’s opinion, and when she tells him he is in the wrong, he is able to admit his failing and finally, after years and years, regrets his action against Nada. He leaves immediately to prepare for his trip to Hell to free Nada. When Death returns to tell her siblings Dream is gone, Destiny requests that they all now disperse, saying that the purpose of their meeting has been fulfilled. The wheels have been put in motion. Dream is on his way to Hell, and he and the world, as well THE SANDMAN and its readers, will never be the same again.

season of mists 5So, that’s the premise of the story from the first issue: Dream must face Lucifer in Hell, and in their previous meeting when Dream went to hell to retrieve his Helm, Lucifer told Dream that he should never enter his realm again. Other than what I’ve said in my summary of this first issue, I do not want to give anything away, which makes this collection very difficult to discuss. Dream does go to Hell, and he gets a very big surprise there (as do we!). As a result of his journey, one of my favorites in the series, Dream is forced to return to his own realm with a possession so valuable every imaginable being, from the Gods and Goddesses in myths from around the world to the Lords of Chaos and Order, believes they have a right to this possession. In the course of the Season of Mists, all these beings will travel to Dream’s realm for a great gathering during which they scheme and petition for this powerful item currently in Dream’s keeping. We meet Odin, Loki, and Thor (much different from their Marvel counterparts). We meet the interesting envoys of Order and Chaos. As a parent, I’m not surprised that Chaos sends a child as an envoy (Gaiman, in fact, was inspired by his young daughter when writing this character). Anubis and Bast put in an appearance. Titania and Auberon send envoys from the Court of Faerie. Limbo sends some angry demons. And two angels — Duma and Remiel — are sent from the Silver City to observe the proceedings. Gaiman throws in some good humor throughout this section. For example, in one small, seemingly throw-away panel, Gaiman lightens the serious tone of his comic by having a thwarted Thor respond to an angry Bast (who has just made clear in a very physical manner that Thor’s advances are unwelcome): “You din’ have to do that. I’d of taken No for an answer. Women. I’m a GOD, but they don’t care. You’re just like Sif. Jus’ like all of them . . . .” Other humor is added by all these grand guests jockeying for position. And you will be greatly surprised by who gains ownership in the end (even Dream is a bit surprised by this ending, so of course you will be, too).

season of mists2Dream’s story is interesting at the level of plot, of course, but the story of his character development should also be considered. In this story, the prideful Dream starts to admit fault. This change is major considering that the Endless Entity he is as we see him in the series must have been a very different character in the past if he was able to condemn a mortal woman to an eternity in Hell for not staying with him forever. It’s not even that she didn’t love him. They were lovers, but she felt she had commitments to the mortal world, too, and could not merely follow selfishly her heart’s desire. The Sandman as one of The Endless seems as if he would never change, but in many ways, his story is a record of this change. We know of only a few changes in the Endless: Delirium used to be Delight, and the missing brother left for a reason. He, too, changed. We don’t find out who he is or the nature of his change or the cause of that change until later in the series, but I love his story. Still, Dream’s story is the focus of THE SANDMAN, of course, and it’s necessary to note the way he changes throughout the series. He is still duty-driven, as we see in his meeting with Lucifer, but he is now willing to admit his own wrongs and go to great lengths to right them. Righting his past wrongs, in other words, becomes part of his Duties as he sees them.

The best dialogue is that between Dream and Lucifer, and their discussion touches on the related topics of Duty and Change. The Endless, of course, have names based on function. Name denotes Identity for each of them. And Lucifer feels as Duty-bound as the Endless. Of particular interest to Gaiman seems the points of similarity between Lucifer and Dream, particularly that they have always been extremely consistent in full-filling their duties and that they are both well-known for their sharing a serious character flaw, that of Pride. Lucifer asks Dream what he was like as an angel, before he fell, since Dream knew him back before Hell existed. Dream answers: “You were very proud, Samael. But you were also very beautiful, and wise — and passionate.” Dream could be describing himself as well, but both have changed, as Lucifer tells Dream: “We’ve changed, since the beginning. Even you, Dream Lord. You were very different back then.” If these Duty-bound entities have changed, what might their duties be now? What will Lucifer’s role be? What of Dream’s duties?

Gaiman also uses Lucifer to talk about punishment and theology. Just as Dream’s ex-lover has been tortured for an eternity for one act of rebellion against her lover, so too has Lucifer been burdened with an eternal punishment for a single act: “Yes, I rebelled. It was a long time ago. How long was I meant to pay for that one action?” How long must a person suffer punishment for a single act, whether that punishment is meted out by another or self-inflicted? The idea that we punish ourselves is of interest for Gaiman, and he even defines Hell in this manner through the words of Lucifer, who says that human beings come to Hell only because they have “transgressed against what they believed to be right.” That’s a very different version of Hell than the one many believe in. In other issues, Gaiman will raise other theological issues with controversial remarks. For example, he’ll take us to The Silver City to meet two angels, but he’ll make the enigmatic comment that The Silver City “is not Heaven.” What is it then? Where do the angels reside if not Heaven? What is Heaven, according to Gaiman? Gaiman, of course, raises more theological questions than he answers, and I like the series all the more for this desire to question combined with a hesitancy to answer.

Gaiman really stretches his wings in this eight-issue story, and if anybody still had any doubts about the greatness of THE SANDMAN in early 1990, they were put to rest by the end of issue 28, in which we get closure on multiple levels, both in terms of plot and theme. We get to find out what happens to Nada, for example, and we see what the new owners of this great and weighty token do with the power it gives them. We also get to see more of Lucifer, who establishes himself as a real breakout character by the end of Season of Mists. In addition to seeing him interact with Dream, we see what happens to him after their run-in with each other. In fact, the fifth to the last page of the final story in this arc shows us what Lucifer is currently up to. However, this final depiction of Lucifer makes us want to know even more about him. Luckily, Neil Gaiman talked Mike Carey into telling a three-issue story about Lucifer. It was so successful, that it was launched as a separate series, which I think is just as great as THE SANDMAN series. Both series lasted 75 issues, and Lucifer has just been collected into five separate generous trade volumes (as of 2015). It really should get almost as much credit as Neil Gaiman’s THE SANDMAN gets. I’ll re-read it soon and post reviews here.

season of mists3There’s another story in Season of Mists that sets up a future series: The Dead Boy Detectives. In one issue, we are taken to a boys’ boarding school in England, and there we meet two young students — Rowland and Paine — who decide to team up and go on adventures after surviving the Hell that is an English Boarding School. It is a funny premise: Gaiman makes such a hellish place into a literal Hell. However, given that Gaiman has admitted that Rowland is based on him and that this story is as close to autobiography as one might expect in THE SANDMAN, the story has disturbing implications. There have been several series telling us of the adventures of these Dead Boy Detectives. My favorite one is a short mini-series written by Ed Brubaker. However, The Dead Boy Detectives has recently been rebooted as part of Vertigo’s new line-up, and at the moment, there are two volumes of collected issues available. So, if you like The Dead Boy Detectives, you have more to read after finishing Season of Mists. I plan to review these, too, in the near future, as well as other series that came out of The Sandman: The Books of Magic, The Dreaming, and other smaller mini-series that tell us what happens to characters introduced in THE SANDMAN. There are also two related series that predate The SandmanThe House of Mystery and The House of Secrets — both of which feature Cain and Abel, two key characters in THE SANDMAN, and those series were started again after the success of The Sandman. Again, I hope to review these as well. I think I could spend a few years reviewing only SANDMAN-related comics!

I could write forever about each volume of THE SANDMAN, and Season of the Mists is no different. The art, as always, is fantastic. It certainly has a specific 1990s Vertigo look to it, particularly the scenes in Hell, which are a return to the horror genre for Gaiman. THE SANDMAN fluctuates between various shades of the larger genre categories of Fantasy and Horror. However, the art that is more fantasy-based looks less dated to me; it depicts well the world of the Dreaming, capturing the fleeting nature of an insubstantial, magical world that follows no rules and is limited only by the imagination. I particularly enjoyed the scenes showing Dream alone walking through hallways, down staircases, and past mirrors. The architecture of Dream’s realm is still impressive and awe-inspiring.

So, for all the reasons I’ve given in this review and the previous reviews I’ve written of THE SANDMAN, you should read Season of Mists. It’s Neil Gaiman writing at his best, so how could you not read it?

Thanks to Sebnem for getting me back on track with these Sandman reviews; your excitement for the world of the Sandman was contagious and made me want to get back to the Land of the Dreaming.

~Brad Hawley

After the stand-alone stories of Vol 3, many of which only feature Morpheus in the background, in Vol 4 the Sandman takes center stage once again. The Prologue sets the stage for a new story-arc, as Destiny strolls through his barren garden, in his monk’s cowl and with his huge book, and encounters the three Fates. As usual, they drop some cryptic clues that big events are afoot and then depart. Destiny checks his book, and learns that the Endless must hold a family meeting. And so the story begins…

Neil Gaiman’s love of stories, mythology, deities, demons, and mysterious unseen forces is plain to see. In Season of Mists, he treats us to a very unique perspective on these things by lifting the curtain that mortals rarely see beyond, and switching the perspective to that of the deities and mythological creatures that have populated the minds of mankind since time immemorial. There is something fundamental in humanity that strives to personify such forces in anthropomorphic form, and Gaiman gleefully takes elements of some of well-known belief systems such as Christianity, which appears to have top billing (including oblique references to the unseen Creator), but includes cameos from an impressive A-list of deities such as Odin, Thor, Loki (Norse), Anubis, Bast, Bes (Egyptian), Susano-o-no-mikoto (Shinto), Azazel, Choronzon, and Merkin (demons from Hell), a Lord of Chaos and Lord of Order, the Faerie siblings Cluracan and Nuala, and two Angels from the Silver City named Duma and Remiel.

You see, all these supernatural beings have come to call on Morpheus’ palace at the heart of The Dreaming because Lucifer, the fallen Angel, has decided after uncountable millennia that he has tired of overseeing the punishment of the damned, and has driven out from Hell both the damned (his clients) and the demons who torment them (his staff). Morpheus only discovers this after deciding he has wronged his former lover Nada, the African queen he damned to hell 10,000 years earlier. When Morpheus arrives in Hell to free her, Lucifer is just tidying up some stragglers and has a convivial chat with Morpheus (who was prepared for a fight), ending with him handing over the key to Hell and heading off to parts unknown (which is the start of a spinoff series called Lucifer).

What a great story idea — Lucifer quitting his job and handing it off to Morpheus unexpectedly. So the bulk of the story involves all the various divinities entreating Dream why they most deserve to take over Hell, as Morpheus clearly isn’t keen on overseeing it. They offers bribes, threats, and stratagems and confidential negotiations abound. It’s all done marvelously and matter-of-fact. I’m not sure how a religious reader would react to this — would this story be offensive? Within the context of the story, Gaiman grants equal weight to each god’s pantheon, but clearly the Creator and his Angels have power and authority above the others.

Which raises some very obvious questions — why does the Creator stay in the background? If we go by the number of believers in the world today, why are Jesus, Allah, and the Buddha not present? And how do The Endless fit into these pantheons? Who sets the hierarchical rules among these competing deities? Clearly there are some hard and fast rules that the Endless such as Destiny, Dream, and Death must follow. They have their duties that must be carried out. But who made these rules? Are all these deities simply manifestations of humanity’s imagination? Or fundamental concepts that predate humanity? Are they fundamental elements of the universe, or do they only exist on Earth because we believe in them? Would all these powerful beings disappear if humanity stopped believing in them, or if humanity wiped itself out? Gaiman’s SANDMAN series raises all kinds of fascinating philosophical questions while still delivering quirky, frightening, and melancholy stories. It makes me very curious how many of these questions he might answer in the course of the series, so I’m looking forward to the next volume.

~Stuart Starosta


  • Brad Hawley

    BRAD HAWLEY, who's been with us since April 2012, earned his PhD in English from the University of Oregon with areas of specialty in the ethics of literature and rhetoric. Since 1993, he has taught courses on The Beat Generation, 20th-Century Poetry, 20th-Century British Novel, Introduction to Literature, Shakespeare, and Public Speaking, as well as various survey courses in British, American, and World Literature. He currently teaches Crime Fiction, Comics, and academic writing at Oxford College of Emory University where his wife, Dr. Adriane Ivey, also teaches English. They live with their two young children outside of Atlanta, Georgia.

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  • Stuart Starosta

    STUART STAROSTA, on our staff from March 2015 to November 2018, is a lifelong SFF reader who makes his living reviewing English translations of Japanese equity research. Despite growing up in beautiful Hawaii, he spent most of his time reading as many SFF books as possible. After getting an MA in Japanese-English translation in Monterey, CA, he lived in Tokyo, Japan for about 15 years before moving to London in 2017 with his wife, daughter, and dog named Lani. Stuart's reading goal is to read as many classic SF novels and Hugo/Nebula winners as possible, David Pringle's 100 Best SF and 100 Best Fantasy Novels, along with newer books & series that are too highly-praised to be ignored. His favorite authors include Philip K Dick, China Mieville, Iain M. Banks, N.K. Jemisin, J.G. Ballard, Lucius Shepard, Neal Stephenson, Kurt Vonnegut, George R.R. Martin, Neil Gaiman, Robert Silverberg, Roger Zelazny, Ursula K. LeGuin, Guy Gavriel Kay, Arthur C. Clarke, H.G. Wells, Olaf Stapledon, J.R.R. Tolkien, Mervyn Peake, etc.

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