What a treat to get more Sandman! Don't get me wrong, I'm completely happy with Gaiman's decision to end the series. That's a large part of the reason why I like it so much: rather than spilling out eternally like most comics runs and diluting its wonderfulness, he gave it a definite arc and form. That said, I love the world and characters he created, and it's wonderful to return to it.
The Dream Hunters was originally written a decade ago. I have yet to read it in its original form, but was previously familiar with the general concept: Gaiman wrote a story based in the mythology of ancient Japan, melding the Eastern setting with his own mythology of the Endless. This wasn't a comic, but rather a novella that was illustrated by a talented Japanese artist; the overall product sounds somewhat similar to his original edition of "Coraline," a relatively slight story with memorable illustration.
In this new edition, Dream Hunters has been adapted into comic book form. Again, I haven't read the novella, so I can't report exactly how the adaptation took place - I doubt that we're reading all of Gaiman's original words, but it seems likely that we're reading his dialog. The art is just amazing. It has a great, classical look to it; it shifts between a couple of different styles, but all of them look appropriate for the setting (some seem almost like Ukiyoe prints, others are vivid and lush drawings of the countryside).
When Dream makes his eventual appearance, I almost cheered. It's such a treat to see him on the page... Sandman always rotated through multiple artists, each of whom gave their own personal spin on the character. Certain elements always remain the same - the pale skin, the height, black eyes that are filled with stars, a mop of unruly black hair. It's utterly fitting with this character that he would seem to shift and change from one issue to the next. The take on Dream is internally consistent here, since the same artist drew the whole story, and it upholds the tradition well. There are some subtle changes to adapt to the Japanese setting: Dream wears a long, flowing robe that is woven with the shapes of various dreaming people, animals, and spirits. Cain and Abel also make a brief but wonderful cameo; I recognized them from their first panel, despite their topknot hairstyle. The Fates return here, once again keeping the same basic roles (maiden, mother, and crone), while looking completely different from how you've seen them before.
While it was great seeing Dream again, he only occupies a fraction of the story. (Which is far from unusual - again, one of the great things about Sandman is its mutability, and many issues in that series would only show Morpheus on a single page.) The main story concerns a monk, a fox, and the onmyoji, a rich and powerful man with magical powers. The first issue could be read by itself as a good stand-along story, but Gaiman picks up the thread on which it ends and continues spinning it out into the main plot of the story.
The monk is a wonderful character, kind of unusual for this type of story because of his plainness. He is a good man, a Buddhist who has absorbed the teachings of faith. He is wise, has a sense of humor, and generally doesn't directly seek to confront opposition in the world, but rather displays a kind of serenity that disarms most potential problems.
The fox initially seems like a minor character, but she grows into the most appealing personality in the book. She is curious, intelligent, and compassionate. She lives in a different world from the monk, with different gods and different rules and different futures. You feel for her as she tentatively tries to bring their worlds together.
Random note: this story seems to contradict the famous quote about foxes and hedghogs. In Sandman, he says that foxes know many things, while hedgehogs know one big thing. In some ways, you could read Dream Hunters as the story of a fox who tries to become a hedgehog.
The onmyoji makes for a good villain, mainly because he isn't obviously villainous. He does horrible things, but he doesn't seem to be driven by malice or cruelty, but rather by fear. That doesn't make his actions any more acceptable, but makes him at least somewhat sympathetic.
Mmmmm... after an extended sojourn with Gaiman's prose, it's great to return to the medium where I first encountered him. As a nice little bonus, reading this book overlapped with reading a nice little profile of Gaiman in the current New Yorker. He's a surprisingly prolific and talented writer, and we're lucky to have him in all the forms that we do.