Two travellers are driving across the United States, headed for Chicago. An unseasonable storm strands them at an inn, known as Worlds' End. Within waits a collection of fellow travellers from many worlds, all waiting for the storm to end. To pass the time they tell stories, stories from many worlds and many times.
Worlds' End is the eighth Sandman collection. It's a collection of self-contained short stories, but the stories feature recurring motifs. They are being told against the backdrop of a 'reality storm' that has been triggered by a cataclysmic event somewhere else in the multiverse (and, although a strong clue is given, we will not find out the nature of that event until the end of the following volume). It's Neil Gaiman's last chance to really exercise his imagination at short lengths before the beginning of the subsequent story arc, Sandman's largest and most epic, The Kindly Ones.
Worlds' End features a succession of stories, told by and featuring characters both new and familiar from the Sandman mythos. 'A Tale of Two Cities' is told in a minimalist art style, mostly through prose accompaniment, and features a traveller who loves his city so much that he becomes trapped in its dreams. It's weird and offbeat, and will probably appeal a lot to fans of China Mieville.
'Cluracan's Tale' features the return of the elf Cluracan, whose story is a bonkers collection of trickery, deception and a swordfight that may or may not have happened. It's lightweight (and Gaiman's not a huge fan of it, feeling it was too big for his page count and was consequently diminished in its impact) but fun. 'Hob's Leviathan' features a traditional narrative device, of a youngster running away to sea, and the return of one of the more popular Sandman characters, Hob Gadling, who was gifted with immortality by Dream and who meets him once a century to catch up. In this story, Hob is a passenger on a ship where the journey takes a turn for the very strange. It's a smart and tight story, with a couple of twists that are perhaps predictable but pulled off so well it doesn't really matter.
In 'The Golden Boy' Gaiman resurrects the fairly obscure DC character Prez Rickard, the first teenage President of the United States of America (running on an independent ticket). Set in an alternate United States, Prez becomes the embodiment of the hopes that Americans apparently place in their leaders: a virtuous man who helps the poor and needy without impoverishing the country, and manages to lower its debts. He resists corruption and survives tragedy (an attempted assassination that takes the life of his fiancee). A story about such a paragon sounds boring, but Gaiman infuses it with wit and some amusing lines and cultural references, not mention several nods to his friend Alan Moore's Watchmen. He also solves a minor puzzle about Dream that had been left dangling for almost five years by that point.
The next story, 'Cerements', is the most complex. Given there are nods in it to the work of Gene Wolfe - the inhumers share some similarities with the guild of torturers in The Book of the New Sun - this is to be expected. It is a tale told by Petrefrax, a prentice inhumer from the Necropolis Litharge. But within his tale, three others tell their tales (one of which contains a short story in itself). The result is a complex Russian's doll of narratives nestled within one another, seemingly disconnected but featuring some key insights into the Endless and (another recurring element in these stories) the nature of how they die. Compared to Cluracan's story (which is lightweight but baggy), 'Cerements' is fiendishly complex but told with impressive economy.
At the end of the collection - after a meta-aside in which a woman at the inn complains about the sexism of the story-tellers - the storm ends with a haunting vision of vast figures in the sky, a clue as to what caused the storm and the event that will drive the remainder of the series.
Worlds' End uses a familiar device (influenced by The Canterbury Tales) but does so with wit and intelligence. The stories are decent, with Cluracan's perhaps being the least memorable, and feature some wonderful fantastical imagery. 'The Golden Boy' also flirts with politics, not the nitty-gritty of ideologies, but what people want from their leaders, no matter how unrealistic. There is also a feeling of doom overhanging the collection, of events, no matter how seemingly disconnected, being linked to a tragedy whose own story is yet to be told.
Worlds' End (****½) is one of the stronger Sandman collections and is available now in the UK and USA, and as part of Volume III of The Absolute Sandman (UK, USA)