Neil Gaiman (text), with Glenn Fabry, Milo Manara, Dave McKean, Miguelanxo Prado, Frank Quitely, P. Craig Russell, Bill Sienkiewicz and Barron Storey (artistic rendering), The Sandman: Endless Nights (DC Comics, 2003)

When Grey e-mailed me and asked if I wanted to review The Sandman: Endless Nights, naturally, I jumped at the chance. "Yes, please," I said. "Thank you," she said. "No," said I, "thank you."

So when I got home from a long Monday at work, tired and footsore, and found the package on my doorstep, I was delighted. I rushed inside, tearing it open as I went. I paused to savor the Dave McKean cover with its particoloured mask. I sniffed that new-book smell. I opened it up and ran my fingers over the fabric-textured end paper. And, without even taking off my boots (and I hate those boots by the end of the day), I sat down to read.

I made it through Neil's introduction and stopped. I realized that I almost didn't want to read this book. Not because I was afraid it wouldn't be up to par. Neil Gaiman has only improved since the end of The Sandman, as far as I'm concerned. But because, once I began it, it would be over all too soon. And I could only read it for the first time once.

I say this to put some perspective on my review. I expected to love this book from the moment I first heard about it. What can I say? I'm a fan. I lack a certain objectivity. But I will try.

Dave McKean did the cover art (who else?), the book design, and the various bits of art between the stories. He's used a mask theme, which I love. Old-fashioned masquerade masks, gaudy and gorgeous, photographed in odd and interesting ways. Because that's what the Endless as we know them are: masks.

P. Craig Russell illustrates "Death and Venice," the first chapter. Russell is the only one of the artists for the stories with whom Gaiman has previously worked, and it's hard to argue with the results of that last collaboration: the fantastic "Ramadan," popularly the favorite single issue in the entire run of The Sandman. The art here is just as compelling, just as beautiful. The story wouldn't be the same without it.

But the story's the thing.

A young soldier returns to Venice as an adult, on leave from his unit, to pursue a child's memory of an empty island where he found a beautiful, pale young woman in black sitting before a rusted gate. She was waiting for it to open. Since that day, his life has been lived in reaction to her.

Gaiman began this story only days after September 11, 2001, in Venice. Nothing about that day appears in this story. But, finishing it, you can see how he got there. When I finished reading it, I was literally breathless, and there were tears in my eyes. And because this story hit me hardest, I can find the least to say about it that belongs in a review.

Turn the page, then, and feast your eyes on the sensual, almost edible, art of Milo Manara in "What I Have Tasted of Desire." A redheaded woman in an undefined country and time wants "like a forest fire." She wants the son of the chief of her village, and she wants him enough that she refuses him. She is Desire's, and for one night in her life, she knows what it is to be completely alive, as Desire knows it.

Read it. See if Gaiman's words and Manara's images don't stir something in you, don't make you want something you can't have. The story is skillful, and says no more than necessary.

Miguelanxo Prado manages to impart some sense of the light that surrounds the incandescent characters in "The Heart of a Star." In this tale, told by a father to a daughter, we meet the Endless as they were when they were young, near the beginning of things. Here is Desire, when it was still its pale brother's favorite sibling. Here is Death, but a Death without humour or joy, whom none can love, and to whom none wish to speak. Here is Despair, the first Despair, the grand lady who views her domain as high art. And here is Dream, in love for the first time in his existence.

For those who have read The Sandman, this peek into the distant past shows us things we have wondered about, helps us to understand the Endless and why they are as they are, particularly Dream. For those who have not, let this story in particular and this book in general serve as the equivalent of a formal introduction.

Barron Storey (what a marvelous name!) gives us the portraits for "Fifteen Portraits of Despair," a series of prose poems for which Dave McKean did the design work. Despair waits behind mirrors, and looks into each of our lives as those mirrors become windows into her realm. You have felt her eyes looking out of the eyes of your reflection. Perhaps, like portrait number three, you have started a list of things that make you happy, and only had one thing to put on it. Perhaps, like number nine, your have felt her kiss, which is and is not in all the things around you. Perhaps, like number eleven, you have had your craft desert you. But somewhere in here is a portrait of your despair, or something like it.

Bill Sienkiewicz, with fractured impressions, chronicles the journey of five of Delirium's own as they are "Going Inside." Following the fishies, they are the team sent in by Daniel and Barnabas to find one hurt girl inside herself.

Glenn Fabry makes destruction, and Destruction, beautiful in "On the Peninsula." An archeologist who dreams of the end of the world tries to get away and take a break by taking a job at a dig on the peninsula known as San Raphael. When she gets there, she finds that what she's unearthing has more to do with her dreams than she could have imagined. And there she meets a handsome man who is looking after his slowly healing sister, a man whose name is not Joe.

Destiny has always been the least dynamic of the Endless. His motions are slow and steady, the rhythm of them beat out by some cosmic clock. Frank Quitely skillfully represents this in a series of very still images which convey that motion. The do not illustrate, but rather compliment, the text of "Endless Nights." It cannot be called a story, as nothing happens. Destiny does not do, he is. And so this piece simply describes what Destiny is.

The first two or three stories in this collection are very distinct, like the first few seeds that you tear from a pomegranate and eat one by one. But starting around, say, Despair's piece, they begin to flow together, as you begin to gulp by the handful instead.

Neil Gaiman could not have written these stories fourteen years ago, when The Sandman premiered. He could not have written them seven years ago, when The Sandman ended. He could not even have written them five years ago, when he wrote The Dream Hunters. He had to go off and do all kinds of other things, writing novels and television shows and screenplays and poetry and songs and everything else he's done in order to write these stories and write them like this. These stories crawl off the page into your mind, where they curl like sinuous carmine dragons. And they settle there, and they smile at you.

This is something I respect about Gaiman: he wrote this enormously popular series which made him internationally famous, and he only comes back to it when he can top himself. Not many writers manage that, despite their best intentions.

So go ahead. Break open the richly-coloured skin of this fruit of the imagination, and try these shining stories.

[Rebecca Scott]