The book begins with the short story "A Study in Emerald," which won the Hugo Award for Best Short Story of 2004. It is a strange little fable set in the world of Sherlock Holmes, or rather, what the world of Sherlock Holmes might have been had it crossed paths with the world of master of horror H.P. Lovecraft, as Gaiman states in the introduction.
It is a marvelous tale, swift and confusing, leaving you with the feeling that you should know exactly what transpired when you really haven't a clue. It involves Holmes, Watson and other characters familiar to those fans of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle's famous detective (and also a great in-joke regarding Watson's war injuries), as well as strange creatures of unknown origins. All in all it's a tale that leaves you scratching your head but ultimately satisfied, and its juxtaposition of two worlds is what makes it the ideal starting point for this book.
It would be unfair, not to mention impossible, to try and classify "Fragile Things." It is a collection, an assortment, but one cannot apply a label such as fantasy or science fiction to it. Many of these stories come from that place that makes Gaiman's work so distinct: that strange realm where the world as we know it, our emotions and experiences, collide with bizarre fantasies of unreality.
The story "How to Talk to Girls at Parties" begins with two boys on their way to a party. It is told from the point of view of one of the boys, and for the first third of the story seems like a somewhat reflective piece about adolescence.
Then the story makes its way ever-so-carefully into that world where people just may not be people any more. I am being deliberately vague so as not to reveal any of the plot details in this story, but it is just one of many examples of how Fragile Things flits effortlessly between genres.
Granted, the book will appeal to those who like fantasy, as most of the stories hinge on fantastical elements. But within that rather vague boundary it contains emotions that are all over the map (the story "Feeders and Eaters" was the most profoundly disturbing thing I've read in a long while) and almost all of them hit home.
The only story that did not quite hit the mark was "The Problem With Susan," in which Gaiman addresses an issue from The "Chronicles of Narnia" that bothered him. That story alone seemed, given the context of Narnia, rather pointless, attempting to answer a question that did not exist. But on the whole, "Fragile Things" contains very little that would not be worth reading a second, third or possibly fourth time.
"Fragile Things" is yet another tribute to the fact that Gaiman can create with a sparkle and flair in most any literary medium or non-medium (I have my questions as to what, precisely, Strange Little Girls, which takes its name from an album by Gaiman's good friend Tori Amos, would be classified as), having written award-winning graphic novels, novels, picture books, children's books, films and, of course, short stories and poems. And for those whose complaint would be that the stories are, being short stories, far too short, "Fragile Things" ends with a 50 page novella which follows a character previously explored in Gaiman's "American Gods."
With a little something for everyone (friends, family, pets, the recently deceased) "Fragile Things" is definitely a volume to peruse at your leisure, preferably with a mug of something warm and caffeinated in one hand and a stout stick laying nearby.