Neil Gaiman is a jack-of-all-trades; he writes in such diverse modes such as graphic novels (comics), short fiction, and novel-length fiction. He has turned two earlier short stories ("Snow, Glass, Apples" and "Murder Mysteries") into radio plays, and another story he co-wrote with longtime collaborator Dave McKean, Mirrormask, was turned into a film that Gaiman helped produce. He is an author of diverse talents and his range of storytelling modes is impressive.
In much of his work, Gaiman uses as rather conversational, empathic characterization approach to highlight dramatic tension in his stories, especially his short fiction. One of the more disturbing pieces from his first short short collection, Smoke and Mirrors, was the story "The Mouse Trap," which used both literal (the attempted baiting of a mouse) to underscore the figurative (the emotions that the female protagonist was feeling due to the events of the story). It was very effective and one of Gaiman's best short stories.
I mention these styles and devices employed in earlier works because in many ways, his latest collection, 2006's Fragile Things (which recently won the British Fantasy Award for Best Collection) is more of the same. However, there are a few reservations that I have about the collection as a whole, which I shall address later.
Fragile Things contain mostly reprints of Gaiman's stories from 1995-2006, including those tales not chosen for 1998's Smoke and Mirrors. Many of the stories included here either won or were up for awards such as the Hugos, the Nebulas, and the WFA, among others both in and outside the United States. For the most part, those stories, especially the Lovecraftian/Conan Doyle-influenced "A Study in Emerald", are excellent examples of how effective Gaiman can be as a short fiction writer. Those stories set up the action quickly, are unsettling enough to make the endings unpredictable at first to the reader, the characterization and the internal and external tensions within all combine to create a satisfying conclusion. Other highlights of this collection are "Closing Time," "October in the Chair," the 2007 Hugo-nominated "How to Talk to Girls at Parties," and the underrated "The Problem of Susan."
However good these individual stories might be, their impact can be lessened if those around them are not as strong. Unfortunately, Gaiman has chosen to continue including some very short pieces and poems between these longer pieces. Perhaps he does so out of a combination of wanting to break up the pattern of having just the longer reprinted pieces, but I was left wondering if those stories were included just to pad out the volume. Those shorter tales just did not connect with me and I believe they detract from the overall experience of the collection.
As a collection, Fragile Things is only united in one aspect, that of the relatively fragile nature of many of the relationships discussed in these stories. For the most part, the characters are not assured, confident people and their apparent searches for meaning do drive much of the action. However, there isn't a consistent style that runs from story to story here and it became rather clear to me that this was more a collection of previous publications and a few new pieces than it was a thematic collection.
This, however, is a minor quibble. The stories I noted above are strong enough to make this collection on par with Smoke and Mirrors, but not enough to make it standout in comparison to that first collection. It is a collection worthy of consideration for many Best Of awards, so highly recommended for people here, especially for Gaiman fans.
Publication Date: September 26, 2006 (US), Hardcover; October 2, 2007 (US), Tradeback