Fragile Things contains just accurately the kind of stories that one would expect Neil Gaiman to write — adolescent fantasy tales that occasionally manage to make hesitant, cautious steps across the border into adult Gothic (but never quite cross over). Fantasy, but lyric fantasy, not epic, and semi-grounded in modern reality: there are no hobbits here, and almost all these tales concern fantastic elements that seem to have somehow brushed up against reality, rather than the reverse.
This quirky collection of short stories is something like a mixtape front-loaded with some good material, some not-so-good. Thus, if this book had ended on page 112, I would have been quite satisfied. The interstitial “poems” aside (which Gaiman essentially apologizes for in the author’s notes), the stories up to that point range from interesting to insipid. Nevertheless, it’s a fantastic run of storytelling; it somehow keeps you turning the pages and jumping to the next story, and somehow I was disappointed to see it end.
If you like Neil Gaiman’s other works (I’ve only previously read Neverwhere, excerpts from Anansi Boys and another short story collection, Smoke and Mirrors), you’ll like these stories; if you don’t, you probably won’t; if you don’t know whether you do or not, but you’re curious enough to read because everyone you know seems to have read him, then this collection provides a legitimate place to start.
I would like to point out flaws, not because the collection is flawed, or because any of these flaws are significant in comparison with the compelling nature of the stories, but because the stories are considerably good that a list of their virtues would become boring, like “this story is the best story about this thing since Neil Gaiman’s last story about this thing.”
First, some — most — or perhaps all of these stories have appeared in prior publications; I believe “The Facts in the Case of the Departure of Miss Finch” and “Fifteen Painted Cards from a Vampire Tarot” were in some editions of Smoke and Mirrors; ”A Study in Emerald” was available for a long time (if it isn’t still) on Neil Gaiman’s website; “Harlequin Valentine” has been available as a small illustrated hardcover for a long time now, etc. If you’re enough of a Neil Gaiman fan to have tracked down all those disparate stories, though, in all those disparate places, this single volume will probably be a marked convenience.
There are stories in here that are attempt to be unsettling, but none that I would classify as actually unsettling — the sort of horror, if it can be called horror, that becomes more frightening the more imaginative you are, the way a particularly startling pattern of shadows might terrify a child but have no effect whatsoever on a more rationally-minded adult, or on mind overexposed and therefore already desensitized to such tricks and treats. I understand that maybe some readers of horror won’t consider this a flaw, but rather a virtue — subtlety is far rarer in fiction these days, and far more difficult to achieve, than simple raw, visceral horror — but I mention it as a caveat to the virgin.
I personally felt that some of the outside references in the stories fell a bit flat, and a few of the stories fell a bit short of Gaiman’s best work. The reworking of Beowulf here (“The Monarch of the Glen”) was not as effective as his earlier “Bay Wolf”, and felt a bit like a pastiche of Gaiman’s other characters. On the other hand, “The Problem of Susan” may be the most effective and disturbing reworking of a children’s story since Gaiman’s own “Snow, Glass, Apples” in Smoke and Mirrors, and “A Study in Emerald” is simultaneously one of the best H.P. Lovecraft-Sherlock Holmes pastiches I’ve ever seen.
I also think that part of the problem with the material stems from the fact that editors apparently ring Gaiman asking him to contribute for specialty anthologies. (“Neil, I’m putting together a collection of stories about gargoyles. Are you in?”) This type of “spec work” is perhaps not the best way to seek inspiration. So to continue my previous analogy, this book’s substandard material should be thought of as something like a CD’s bonus tracks.
That said, Fragile Things is a mostly enjoyable read, and to reiterate, the first third of the book alone is worth the price of admission.