Series Breakdown Rating:
Characters and Character Development: 6
Aesthetics and Style: 8
Overall Plot: 6
Audience Assumptions: No familiarity
Volume 4: Season of Mists – ****
Part One: Did We Get Stuck with the Second Most Boring of These Characters as Our Protagonist? Yes. Yes, we did.
The story finally returns to its main plot with this book, and we get our first full introduction to the Endless as a reward for suffering through book three.
Dream, having wrangled the immediate consequences of his decades-long confinement and resumed a semblance of the normal, is called to a family dinner and gets in a fight with his siblings, leading to a conversation with Satan and the acquisition of the key to Hell. This story delves into much of the lore surrounding the Endless and expands upon the world of the series beyond earth and the Dreaming. The series has demonstrated a variety of worlds and magic systems but shrouded them in mystery, introducing gods and fantastic beings, some from myth and others invented by the creators of this series, but rarely integrating them into the series plot. The Sandman is connected to other DC Comics stories, allowing for cameo appearances by Batman, Constantine, and the Green Lantern Corps. As with other expanded universe-connected series, these cameos often feel out of place within the world of The Sandman, but the series finds a solution for integrating them in this volume by using the Endless as a lens through which all of the rest of the DC universe could hypothetically be explored.
The Endless are seven entities which personify certain aspects of life that start with D: Destiny, Death, Dream, Destruction, Desire, Despair, and Delirium. The first book only gives indication of three of the Endless, but later references reveal more of them, of which Destiny, Death, and Dream are the oldest. Each one controls and also exhibits aspects of the concept they represent, ruling over a realm and acting as the sort of grim reaper of people experiencing their concept on earth. Dream, for instance, controls dreams and nightmares of all sorts, both those people experience while asleep and while awake. They preside over their bounds like gods and are billions of years old, stated to be among the oldest entities in the universe although how this works out is unclear. They can travel wherever they wish and seem largely unrestricted in their magical capabilities, but despite their immense influence, they’re still conscious beings with emotions and flaws. The Endless act much more like Greek or Norse deities than the Abrahamic god.
Two things struck me when I read the chapter that introduces most of the Endless: first, they behave much like real siblings with their internal squabbles (two of them are in a long-running rivalry over some past incident, one of them is overly serious, another one mimics the overly serious one because he looks up to him, one of them has run off to “find himself,” and one of them can barely keep herself together), and second, that only one of them (Destiny) is more boring than our protagonist.
All of Endless except for Destiny show at least some modicum of complexity at some point or another. They each have personalities bound by their interests — Death, for instance, is jovial every chance she gets but is also somber about her job because it carries more weight than those of her siblings. Destiny, however, is an astonishingly dull character. Setting aside our confusion about why he’s supposed to be the oldest of them, Destiny offers no hint of expression, or even volition, despite the series insisting he has control of both. He basically follows what’s in his little book and does what it says. Who determines what’s in his book? Why can’t he deviate from it? Why is he a character if he basically goes through about as much forethought as a houseplant? The series doesn’t bother to elaborate. Thankfully, Destiny is not our protagonist, but that doesn’t much alleviate my concern that the actual protagonist seems to use him as a role model. Dream takes his job very seriously and tries to distance himself from his actions, more concerned that a thing does happen than he is about its consequences. Still, the other characters are enjoyable and their interrelationships informative of their roles within the story. Pantheon family dinners are always fun.
Part Two: We Are the Most Powerful Beings in Existence — I Mean, Aside from Those More Powerful Ones Who Call All the Shots
Because this book delves into the broader aspects of its world’s lore and starts to define the boundaries of the Sandman universe, I think it’s worth talking about where those boundaries are because they communicate some ideas I don’t think the series necessarily intended.
As I mentioned, the book establishes the Endless as god-like beings who exert an immense amount of control over parts of the lives other beings, and are subject to the influences of one another. The Endless can die, which is part of the tension behind Death’s interactions with her siblings, and each of them is heavily impacted by whatever concept they embody, often to their own detriment. Dream is creative and can be immensely compassionate, but the expansive, labyrinthine nature of dreams, as well as their tendency to not always be pleasant, causes him to establish arbitrary limits over himself — even though he regularly breaks those limits. The Endless are defined by those who experience their realms, including themselves. When no more beings exist that can dream, die, desire, etc., then the Endless will fade from existence as well. They’re said to be the oldest and first things to exist, forces of nature that are in some ways asides to life.
So, addressing the elephant in the room, if the Endless are god-like deities, how does the Abrahamic god and associated lore like Heaven and Hell fit into this series? Well, they’re not alone among mythology and religious lore; other gods like the Ancient Egyptian and Norse pantheons appear in the latter half of the volume as inhabitants of their own realms that vary in strength according to their followers. Dream seems to preside over these realms in part, as once the gods no longer have followers, their realms seem to become a small part of his own, eventually fading entirely. The Abrahamic lore, however, seems to be a bit different. The Endless submit to the Abrahamic god as the “real” one that created the universe, more powerful and pre-dating them even though this would seem a direct conflict with how the other deities in the series function. At some points in the series, Hell is said to has switched hands a few times, suggesting that the influence of the Abrahamic religions may be the contributing factor in why Dream defers to the angels over all of the other deities. If the Abrahamic lore is supposed to be on the same level as the other gods and their associated mythologies, then the book is simply implying that the Abrahamic mythology is in its heyday while the others have long since passed their own.
While this is a logical jump based on the series’ established lore, the books never state it outright and continue to reference a creator entity of a regrettably similar ilk to the Abrahamic god without explanation, undermining what little potential intrigue there is in this story element. This might not be something worth bringing up in a series that ultimately has little to do with any of these deities or their respective cultural significance, but it’s not an isolated phenomenon within the fantasy genre. I find that western stories especially have a difficult time separating the mythology of a religion from the religion itself — many of us love to read about the pantheons of extinct religions, but rarely look at them in the same way as those that people very much practice around us today. “Mythology” has become a shorthand for “those things old heathens believed because they were too stupid to understand how the world really works,” which is a position that inevitably becomes dated. Ancient cultures had exactly the same thoughts on their predecessors and other religions of their time. Rarely, especially in the U.S., do we consider that the Romans took their gods just as seriously as modern Christians do theirs. Nor do we like to consider that to non-Abrahamic cultures, Christian lore is just as disconnected from reality as Norse mythology is to Christians.
I feel like almost every series that hails from Europe or the U.S. with multiple canonical deities relegates those deities to a different position than Abrahamic lore. We have to specify that just because Zeus and Loki are real in the story, that doesn’t mean there isn’t also a higher power that controls everything as an assumed stand-in for the Abrahamic god. Even though I somehow doubt many Jews, Christians, or Muslims would take kindly to the suggestion that their god was actually created by and guided by the Greek pantheon.
It just sort of rubs me the wrong way when fantasy series feel they need to validate the religious majority, even though don’t think I’ve ever actually come across a religious person demanding that validation. If a fantasy story is too at odds with someone’s personal beliefs, they’ll usually either put it down or find a way to compartmentalize it on their own. Either they just assume that their deities exist in this world too even if the story doesn’t mention it explicitly, or they’ll be fine with the idea that their deities don’t exist in this little fictional universe. I don’t think The Sandman is trying to coddle people who believe in the Abrahamic god, but that’s what it ends up doing all the same.
Part Three: Struggle? What’s That?
This book centers around two minor dilemmas, one of which is brought up in earlier books and one of which arises partway through this one. The main character once locked up his lady love (or one of them, anyway) in the pits of Hell, and after ten thousand years, he’s decided that he should probably get her out. Dream travels to Hell, prepared for an epic battle, but finds it almost completely abandoned. As it turns out, Satan wants to retire, so he’s let everyone free — demons are on the loose, the dead are coming back to life, and Dream’s ex-girlfriend is nowhere to be seen. To add further drama, he gives Dream the key to Hell to do with as he pleases, which Dream naturally does not want.
The key induces the second dilemma, which is that, somewhat understandably, a lot of other people want it. This point, about halfway through, is when the plot begins to break down for me. It’s fine to see some new worlds and present the protagonist with a challenge, but beyond turning into an excuse to introduce a slew of new one-off characters, largely deities (all with their own fucking speech bubble formats, by the way), the challenge isn’t much deserving of that title.
The thing about struggle is that it requires effort, or at least some modicum of thought, but the protagonist resolves both issues with the barest amount of involvement. One of the entities that wants the key literally brings Dream’s ex with them, and he gets her back after jumping through a demon’s mouth for a bit, never really risking himself in the process. The dilemma of who gets the key is resolved when God just sends his minions down and says, “Fuck you, I want it,” to which the protagonist agrees. Neither of these subplots would feel so anticlimactic if there were consequences. I didn’t mind the character traveling to Hell and meeting no resistance there because he received this key that initially seems to worry him, and which is described as more of a curse than a blessing. However, at no point does it provoke anything resembling a curse, or really do much at all other than attract visitors who talk a lot and then leave without a fuss. The first half of the book appears to have teeth, but the second half reveals them to be made of rubber.
Lack of conflict is not new to this series; it’s been an issue from book one, but that doesn’t excuse it. The plot itself isn’t as flat as in the last book, and it has its merits in progressing the main story in some form at least, but it ends up feeling hollow for all its relative three-dimensionality. Almost everything in this book could be skipped without confusing events later in the series, and aside from the opening with the Endless, Dream’s character doesn’t undergo much change either. That said, its delivery still has merits, and the quality of the first part of the book ends up outweighing the latter half for me.