It went like this: Neil Gaiman was hired to work on the localisation of Studio Ghibli’s Princess Mononoke, and through that process he met artist Yoshitaka Amano. They made plans. Somewhere in the heavens the stars aligned, and in my world a little piece of heaven fell to earth.
The Dream Hunters is a stand-alone story within the extended Sandman universe so it doesn’t require any special knowledge of what came before; and despite what Gaiman playfully claimed, it’s an original idea not based on any pre-existing Japanese myth. A fox and a raccoon make a bet with each other, whichever of them is able to drive a humble Buddhist Monk from his home should claim it as their own, for a home like his is much better than a draughty old hole in the ground. The two conspirators summon up pretend demons and other forms of trickery to scare the Monk away. The Monk’s intelligence is tested and his worth displayed as he confronts each in turn. It would be a short book if the animals succeeded so readily so it makes sense that things go wrong.
It’s a love story of sorts between two of the three main characters. It introduces an antagonist, a selfish and wicked onmyoji (a kind of magician), with an agenda that complicates things further. His story is played out parallel to the Monk's, and can be seen as almost a mirror image.
As it unfolds the story takes on a life of its own. It feels as if Gaiman is simply the chronicler, as the narrative flows like something organic.
The love story of the primary narrative is the main focus but similarly embedded in the subtext is a loving homage to the power of myth and the enduring beauty of storytelling. That same beauty is reflected in the brush and pencil strokes of Final Fantasy artist Yoshitaka Amano. The Japanese artist doesn’t do comic books in the traditional sense, so instead he gives us a great number of fully painted full page illustrations that sit alongside Gaiman’s prose. His paintings are almost translucent at times, with grace and confidence in every stroke.
I’ve met people that dislike Amano's style because beneath those graceful lines he leaves sketchy guide lines and his mistakes are clear to see but I find that honesty appealing. Some of the paintings are evocative of Gustav Klimt with wonderful use of gold and cluttered perspectives that make you work hard to find the focal point. Basically, the illustrations will be a love it or hate thing, and may well be the deciding factor in whether or not you choose to purchase.
The story is filled with a great many Shakespearean influences (much of Gaiman's output is) but don't expect that kind of complex narrative. The language used is simplistic, like a child's fairytale, but is chock full of emotion. I would love to hear it read aloud, around a camp-fire in a clearing in wood, I think that would be a perfect location to compliment it.
Characterisation is mostly handled through actions and reactions, leaving the reader free to project their own thoughts onto the players, this helps the story seem more personal than it otherwise could've been.
By the end you should come to understand the reason for everyone's actions with perhaps one exception, something remains unanswered and I am unsure if we are to give it meaning or if the absence of clarification in that is the true meaning. There is a line uttered by Morpheus that makes me feel it is the latter. I mention it only because I know other people have found it irritating; I found it very exciting.
Gaiman managed to make Dream Hunters both accessible to new readers and pleasing to existing fans, so if you're a Sandman fan it will sit beautifully alongside your other books, conversely if you've ever been tempted but equally hesitant to delve into Sandman because of its density and length then this is a perfect opportunity to do so. It's easily read in one sitting and for me will be read time and again.