Series Breakdown Rating:
Characters and Character Development: 6
Aesthetics and Style: 8
Overall Plot: 6
Audience Assumptions: No familiarity
Volume 9: The Kindly Ones – ***
Part One: Interesting Art Choice; And By “Interesting,” I Mean “Perplexing”
Ah. Well, here we are resuming the plot, and boy was I confused by this book. The reasons are varied, but the most immediate ones stem from the block-shaded, brightly-colored, angular art style that has not, to my knowledge, been used elsewhere in the series. The books have changed their art many times in the past and gone through a number of recurring artists and artists brought in to work on individual issues. That’s not unusual; what is unusual is that this entire book is done in an art style which, while not bad, lacks many of the features that link the other styles together. All of the other Sandman issues feature relatively detailed, dynamic characters colored in high-contrast with a bit of color added occasionally. Some of the issues are more stylized than others, but with the exception of the cities story at the start of the last book, none of them are nearly this geometric or simplified.
This wouldn’t be a problem in a short story or a short story collection, which is what I initially assumed this book was. However, I found the art to be much more distracting than usual because of the abrupt change. This book is the climax of the series and follows the main plot, so it requires facial details and expressions in order to effectively serve the story. Sometimes it manages to do that effectively, particularly with Hippolyta and any surreal sort of sequence. However, I found the simplified style and bright colors struggled to depict the Endless, and Dream in particular. It’s sometimes difficult to tell what they’re doing or thinking, especially when the established visual shorthand for character expressions has to be altered to accommodate the new visual style. I suppose it’s possible that the series is trying to use the visuals to clue into Dream’s mental state, but if that’s the case, it clashes with the precedent set up at the end of Volume 7. After the deeply emotional gestures of that book, the relatively stiff postures of the characters feel unintended.
Of course, I’m not familiar with the external context, so it’s possible that something happened to the previous lead artist and someone had to come in to fill their place or something like that. I don’t blame the series if that’s the case, but if it was an optional decision, it’s a bit of an odd one. I’m not sure I like it given how this book needs to remain tonally consistent in order to deliver the climax of the series.
Also, the version I read had the world’s worst font used for its subheading and it took me a ridiculously long time to figure out what this book was even called. That’s not really important, but future authors, please use a legible fucking font. There is no earthly reason why you need to make half of your Latin Alphabet letters look Cyrillic, especially when your title is written in English.
Part Two: Death: You Kind of Want It to Be Meaningful
The basic summary of this book is that Dream dies. He steals Daniel as he suggested he would do back in Volume 2, and in doing so, sows the seeds of his own destruction. Hippolyta tries to find Daniel, only to be told that he’s been killed horrifically. Distraught, she calls upon the Furies to help her destroy Dream, thinking he’s to blame (which, yeah, he is, even though Daniel is still alive). The Furies have limited power over the Endless, but Dream spilling his kin’s blood by way of Orpheus grants the Furies the ability to bypass his powers, leaving him helpless as they tear through his realm. After setting smaller plots in motion to ensure the survival of the Dreaming, Dream meets with his older sister and dies, at least insofar as the Endless can.
The Daniel subplot has not been built up considerably at this point. The last Dream indicated he even remembered Daniel was several books back when he checked on him and told Hippolyta something to the effect of, “It’s not ready yet.” Beyond that, Daniel hasn’t factored into the main plot at all. That’s a pity because it’s a potentially intriguing contribution to Dream’s character. What happens when the child grows too powerful to stay on earth and Dream does decide to take him? Given Dream’s shall we say poor parenting record, how would he cope with having to teach a child like himself? What happens when you have two Dreams? Would the child’s abilities develop the same way, or could he become an antagonist centered around nightmares? And what are the ramifications of this falling so close on the heels of Orpheus’ death?
Mostly, these questions are left unanswered as Daniel simply turns into a new Dream, complete with the old one’s memories and personality (or lack thereof). Early in Volume 9, it becomes clear that Dream intends for Daniel to become his replacement. Overcome with the events of Volume 7, he can no longer cope with his position among the Endless and knows that one way or another, he’s going to die soon. The book presents him as near-suicidal and implies that he has been for some time, setting up events in such a way that they culminate in this volume to doom him.
Much of this plot works poorly within the series. Typically, the climax of a story builds upon previous events so that it carries more weight for the characters and audience. Introducing a brand new conflict at the end of a story is fairly rare. While Volume 9 attaches established characters like Daniel, Hippolyta, Loki, and Puck, none of these characters have really been built up, certainly not the same way Destruction, Nadia, or even Orpheus were. Sometimes stories can get away with twist climaxes as long as they still serve the theme of the series. The Sandman emphasizes a dramatic change in Dream’s character, so the audience expects it to either happen or for him to finally accept it as part of the climax. I would argue the climax has more to do with him continuing to try to escape or ignore his personal growth than face it, which doesn’t make for an especially satisfying culmination. So many minor plot threads leading to this event have been planted that we feel they should suddenly click into place and reveal an image that was there the whole time, like how the solution to a good mystery seems obvious once it’s revealed. None of that happens.
This volume is all about Dream’s death, which kind of comes out of nowhere. I might be inclined to give it the benefit of the doubt if this new storyline were intense or enthralling in its own right. The story plays with death motifs and Death herself is an enjoyable character. While Volume 7 doesn’t cleanly lead into this one, you could easily fudge a cohesive story by way of the atmosphere alone.
The problem is that the book seems confused about what it wants to happen and what it wants Dreams involvement in each event to be. Dream resurrects the Corinthian in this book and sends him to retrieve Daniel. “From his mother?” you might reasonably ask. No! From Loki and Puck. Yeah, remember how Dream offered sanctuary to the Norse god back in Volume 4 (which is a terrible idea no matter which version of Loki you use), and how Robin Goodfellow the puck escaped to the real world in that iteration of A Midsummer Night’s Dream? Well, they return and set off the whole conflict of the plot by kidnapping Daniel, making his mother think he’s dead, and “burning away his mortality” so he can’t be returned to her. Okay, then Hippolyta coming after Dream is a misunderstanding and Dream’s a victim of happenstance, right? Well, the book implies that they do this on Dream’s orders, or that at the very least he was aware they might do something along these lines. An oddly specific thing to guess or request, but far from the most surreal part of this book’s plot. The bottom line is that Dream is culpable, so he’s a perpetrator, not a victim. However, the book continues to deflect responsibility for the destruction of the Dreaming to Hippolyta and the Furies. It wants the audience to view Dream’s downfall as an unpredictable series of circumstances which he is nonetheless guilt-ridden about, and only by nobly sacrificing himself can he save his kingdom and friends. As the actual events play out, Dream sets up an elaborate plot to make enemies whom he knows will wreak havoc on his realm while trying to reach him, and when they come, he’s apathetic to the suffering of those who risk their lives to protect him. He sacrifices himself, sure, but not only does he evade a violent death unlike his subjects, he seems to do it for selfish reasons, thinking it a necessary part of his character growth. He even takes his shirt off to show the audience his nipples. Also, he doesn’t really die, he just sort of reboots himself.
So, yeah, Dream’s a bit of a prick.
The book adopts the self-important tone of much of the rest of the series, but it becomes a major drawback here where before it was mildly annoying. The main character dying should be important. It feels like it wants to be important. However, by making the plot of this particular volume so convoluted and the actions of the main character so disconnected from that same plot, the book utterly fails to build any sort of tension. Dream’s apparent lack of self-preservation might reflect a character who has no strength to fight back and can only accept the grave he’s dug for himself, which follows the setup at the end of Volume 7. But the thing is, even though he’s implied to be ultimately responsible, the book still frames everything as someone else’s fault. It feels like Dream is trying to deflect culpability by issuing others to do his dirty work. It’s not like the Furies or Puck and Loki are spiraling out of Dream’s control; his lack of response shows more apathy for the destruction they cause than it does guilt over being the reason for it. Everything goes according to his plan, after all. If he didn’t do any of it intentionally, then it’s a Rube Goldberg machine of coincidences that end up killing him, and that makes his death all the more ridiculous.
Dream crafting an elaborate self-sacrifice-but-not-really is conceited, even for him, but it’s not wholly outside of the purview of his character. That still doesn’t make the plot satisfying — there’s no substance to it. He isn’t sacrificing himself, and because he’s not really dying or changing from it, there’s little personal growth for Dream himself. The other characters only really respond to his actions in the next book, and I’ll talk more about them then, but suffice to say, the series seems to think Dream is acting perfectly reasonable. Dream’s death is a light show, a chance for him to draw attention to himself to little purpose and with a lot of collateral damage. It’s dressed up as an intense, emotional moment, but it’s about as dramatic as a child lying down on the floor, sticking out their tongue, and saying, “I’m dead now.”
Further compounding problems with Dream’s death is how the series establishes him as suicidal. Suicide is a sensitive subject to bring about in fiction under any circumstance, but it’s especially upsetting when a series opts to romanticize or dramatize it as this one does. The Sandman glorifies suicide as a form of self-expression while completely sidestepping its most immediate and horrific consequences. At no point is Dream doing or threatening anything that might end his life; all he’s doing is reverting to a younger version of himself that has fewer life experiences. He’s suicidal in the same way that someone saying, “I died a little inside” is suicidal. Maybe don’t treat a trivial character dilemma the same way as a literally life-threatening health issue, yeah?
Part Three: Delirium
Delirium doesn’t play a large role in this book, but I wanted to spend some time talking about her because her levity is always welcome in a story that is so often dour, and she’s genuinely one of my favorite characters in this series. She’s introduced along with the other Endless in the fourth book and her personality is immediately apparent. She’s dressed like a high schooler’s self-insert fantasy character, complete with rainbow-dyed hair, fishnet leggings, and mismatched eyes, but she has the air of someone who is either constantly high, an imaginative child, or both – in other words, she acts appropriately delirious.
Some of the other Endless encapsulate their name in a similar fashion, but all of them subvert their associated concepts at least a little. You need an explanation for why Destiny caries around a book or what Despair’s hook does in order to understand why those things represent them. If you knew their names and saw them all lined up, but weren’t familiar with the characters, you might be able to connect the name with face after some thought and by process of elimination, but you’d recognize Delirium almost instantly. Apart from her outward appearance, she has a unique speech bubble format, speech pattern, internal logic, and even a way of carrying herself that identifies her. She can barely stand up straight or keep a single thought in her head for more than a second, yet her powers are probably most similar to Dream’s in their scope. She can create anything she wants, and because she has a child’s self-restraint, she often does. This is largely what makes her such an entertaining character in the seventh book, especially when paired with Dream and required to stay focused.
However, Delirium occasionally shows more complexity than her outward demeanor would suggest, which makes her more interesting than other well-designed characters like the Corinthian. Delirium is actually the mutated representation of another concept; she was originally Delight, but has since come to embody something else. We only see a brief glimpse of what she used to be like in the fourth book and one or two other occasions when she mentions it, but the series implies the transformation was stark and something she’s still adjusting to. Delirium can, when she chooses, draw up information that none of the other Endless seem to be able to access. She can drop her persona altogether when she needs and talk like an ordinary person, even changing her outward appearance, which supports the idea that who these Endless beings are as people is distinct from, albeit still connected to, what they personify.
That relationship between an Endless’ personality and their occupation is something Dream struggles to grasp but Delirium, for whatever reason, seems to understand. She intentionally keeps those two parts of herself conjoined, because it’s what makes her who she is and because rejecting her identity causes her physical pain. I would argue that Dream’s arc is about him recognizing these two separate elements of his own being and trying to cope with their incompatibility. His death could then be seen as an attempt to rid himself of his more personable nature, a foil to Delirium’s choice, if it is in fact a choice, to keep both elements and let them interact in chaotic ways.