July 19, 2007


M Is for Magic. By Neil Gaiman. HarperCollins. $16.99.

InterWorld. By Neil Gaiman and Michael Reaves. HarperCollins. $16.99.

      Neil Gaiman is something of a marvel. Whether writing in short form or long, alone or in partnership, he puts an indelible stamp of mystery, intrigue and the most unexpected sort of heart-tugging emotion into his work. For example, his Good Omens, written with Terry Pratchett, is a classic of sorts, with two top-notch stylists and plotters complementing each other rather than (as could easily have happened) rubbing each other the wrong way. Gaiman has a way of getting the most from words, from collaborators, and from concepts – and that includes in his stories for children.

      But beware: what Gaiman considers appropriate for kids may not be quite what parents want them reading. His novel Coraline had enough genuine chills to be a dark adult fantasy, but was recommended for ages eight and up. These two new books target ages 10 and up, but there are plenty of 10-year-olds who will not be psychologically ready for them. Some 12-year-olds, too – and maybe even some older readers.

      The more “adult” of the books is the short-story collection, M Is for Magic, which pays tribute to the dark fantasies of Ray Bradbury in a number of ways. The title mirrors those of such Bradbury books as R Is for Rocket and S Is for Space (although the content does not – there’s virtually no SF here); and one story, the spookily atmospheric “October in the Chair,” is dedicated to Bradbury. Other tales here are worthy of the same dedication: “Troll Bridge,” about life and loss from a perspective far too adult for most young readers; “Don’t Ask Jack,” a short chiller left deliberately open-ended; and “The Price,” a truly scary cat story. Other standouts among these 11 stories are the picaresque “Sunbird,” the sort-of-science-fictional “How to Talk to Girls at Parties,” and the tremendously involving and genuinely strange “The Witch’s Headstone” (about a boy raised by the dead). Gaiman does humor, too, in the tall tale of “How to Sell the Ponti Bridge,” the gently offbeat “Chivalry,” and the wonderful telescoping of detective stories and nursery rhymes, “The Case of the Four and Twenty Blackbirds.” The free-verse “Instructions,” which ends the book, is also a fairy tale – or, rather, a guide to any reader who might find himself or herself caught in one. All these stories have been published before, and some have been collected before, but that in no way diminishes their power – or the expressive range that Gaiman shows in every one of them.

      The range is somewhat more limited in the novel InterWorld, and that is not necessarily a bad thing – certainly not for those who enjoy Gaiman’s forays into SF, for that is what this book is. It’s the story of a boy who has a habit of getting lost, and who at one point gets so lost that he finds himself in a parallel world, where there is another one of him; and it turns out that there are lots of other versions of him, and they must all band together to fight unspeakably evil forces whose triumph could meant the end of all the worlds. This is not a particularly unusual SF plot, but Gaiman’s trademark creation of amused sympathy for characters gives it more depth than many similarly plotted books possess. And Michael Reaves, who is not only an SF writer himself but also an experienced writer for TV and films, contributes fast pacing and cinematic cuts from scene to scene that keep InterWorld moving at a fast pace – even as the character sketches by Gaiman (who has done his own share of TV and movie work) provide an expansive view of young Joey Harker and all the other Joey Harker approximations with whom he interacts. (In truth, it is pure guesswork as to who contributed what to the book; but this scenario makes sense based on the style of Gaiman’s and Reaves’ other work. And if it’s wrong, that just means that their cross-pollination has been even more effective.) The underlying plot of InterWorld has to do with science, magic, and the balance between them, within our world and across an infinitude of worlds. It’s a big subject, which Gaiman and Reaves make manageable by keeping the focus on Joey, a non-hero who, of course, turns out to be quite a hero indeed. There is high adventure here, and there is also some thoughtfulness – all of it mixed with skill and authorial panache. And because of the story’s design, it would be easy for Gaiman and Reaves to craft a sequel, or several, if InterWorld proves popular.

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