I also felt that far too many stories in the collection employed the story-within-a-story structure. Look, Gaiman, I get it, you like stories about stories. I love stories about stories. But when six or seven stories begin with a character telling their story as if it is a story or being told the story by someone else, it begins to get tiresome. Especially when the frame adds nothing and seems to be there to add a layer to the base story to make it more interesting since it can't stand on its own. "October in the Chair" was particularly disappointing since the frame was more interesting than the nested story, and it didn't go anywhere. A few other stories had potential, but I found that several stories just felt pointless. Overall, there didn't seem to be a startling amount of variety in the stories, and for a collection subtitled "Short Fictions and Wonders," there were a lot of stories that didn't really feature any sort of fantastical elements.
I decided that I was on a short-story kick, which coincided with the release of Machine of Death: A collection of stories about people who know how they will die, edited by Ryan North, Matthew Bennardo, and David Malki !. Five years ago, this Dinosaur Comics strip inspired the collection that was released this October. The premise is simple: there is a machine that takes a blood sample and tells you how you will die. Not when or where, just how. MURDER. SKYDIVING ACCIDENT. LUNG CANCER. And so on. No one knows how it works, and no one knows why its readings are so maddeningly ambiguous: OLD AGE could mean you die of old age, or it could mean that an elderly driver runs you over next week. All anyone knows is that it is never, ever wrong.
Now, I haven't read a lot of anthologies in my day, so the following statement may not hold much weight, but: THIS IS THE BEST ANTHOLOGY I HAVE EVER READ.
Seriously. Out of the 34 stories in this collection, I was only meh on maybe one or two of them, and I liked all the others. The creativity on display is astounding: the various authors all have different approaches to the concept. How would the world react to the Machine of Death? Would such a machine be banned? Or would it be embraced? Would people begin living for their deaths rather than their lives? What does your death say about your life? Does knowing the method of your death, however ambiguous, change the way you live? Should you attempt to escape your inevitable demise?
Honestly, I almost want to say nothing at all about the individual stories because I loved discovering each new world, each new take on the idea. So many different characters! We have insurance salesmen ("Torn Apart and Devoured by Lions"), doctors ("Despair"), lab assistants ("Almond"), soldiers ("Starvation," "Shot by Sniper"), the inventors of the Machine itself ("Exploded"), Yakuza ("Improperly Prepared Blowfish"), politicians ("Exhaustion from Having Sex with a Minor"), infomercial writers ("Cocaine and Painkillers"), and many more. Each title is a method of death predicted by the Machine, but—and this is important to know going in to keep from being disappointed—it is not necessarily the way the protagonist will die. And, no, the protagonist does not always die at the end of the story. The obvious story to write is "Character tries to avoid death and then dies ironically," but only a handful of stories end that way, and when they do, it's not the point of the story. These stories are about how individual characters and society react to having their fate handed to them on a strip of paper. Some are funny. Some are sad. Some are sweet. Some are devious. Some have strong character relationships that transcend the premise hidden in the background. Some seek to analyze the very concept of predestination and fate on the level of quantum physics. Some...you guys, just fucking read it.
You can even read the book for free. That's right, free. You can also buy it on Amazon or, soon, at your local brick-and-mortar store. Did I mention that each story is accompanied by art by one of very many talented artists? Here, you even get a bonus story, "Gored by a Screwdriver," written by David Malki ! as a gift to his proofreaders. This book is so good, you guys. It's clever and lovely and ironic and cute and creepy and thought-provoking and epic.
After reading Fragile Things, I thought that I had liked Smoke and Mirrors better, so I picked it up and re-read it on Sunday. It had been several years since I'd read it, and I am now very confident in saying that I prefer it to Fragile Things. In fact, I think I liked it more this time than I did the first time around. Only a few stories didn't really do much for me, and the ones that weren't fully satisfactory or resolved, exactly, didn't leave me with the same amount of disappointment as the ones in Fragile Things; I still enjoyed the time I spent.
This collection, subtitled "Short Fictions and Illusions," has more fantastical elements (starting from the story hidden in the introduction, "The Wedding Present"), which is where Neil Gaiman is more at home. "Chivalry" concerns an old woman who finds the Holy Grail at an antique shop, "The Price" features a Black Cat who appears to be defending a family from an unknown assailant, "Troll Bridge" is about, you know, a bridge troll that a young boy tries to outwit, "Changes" is a sci-fi tale about a cure for cancer that comes with an unexpected side effect, "Shoggoth's Old Peculiar" is somewhat of a piss-take on Lovecraft that is still a loving homage, "Only the End of the World Again" revisits Lovecraft and adds a werewolf, "We Can Get Them for You Wholesale" is the devilish story of a man who hires an assassin who makes him an offer he can't refuse, "Foreign Parts" is the somewhat uncomfortable story of a man with a very curious venereal disease that is not a venereal disease, and "Murder Mysteries" features the Vengeance of the Lord investigating the death of an angel. Perhaps it was because I'd read these stories before, but I found this book a much quicker read than Fragile Things, which I sometimes felt like I was slogging through when I hit a story that did absolutely nothing for me. Overall, Smoke and Mirrors is simply a much better reading experience.
I just made a curious observation, though. My favorite story in Fragile Things, as I noted, was "Sunbird," which Gaiman said was his take on R.A. Lafferty. My favorite story in this collection—and my favorite Gaiman short story, period—is "We Can Get Them for You Wholesale," which Gaiman said was his take on John Collier. I'm not sure what it says about me or Gaiman that he excels at copping other people's styles.