Neil Gaiman is prolific, in the best sense. He started gaining fame for his graphic novels and comics, broke into the fiction scene with American Gods and Good Omens, wrote some movie scripts, a Dr. Who episode, and a bunch of great books for young readers. Now he has a new book coming out.
With this huge body of work, where is a new fan (or a fan looking to reread) supposed to start?
Well, here's my list of Gaiman's five best books. (I am going to ignore his work in graphic novels and his film work, as well as his picture books, not because they're bad, but because my list would get too long.)
This is just a jumping off point — feel free to leave alternate lists in the comments.
1. American Gods
This wasn't Gaiman's first book, but it has overshadowed almost all of his other works. First released in 2001 (an "Author's Preferred Text" came out in 2011 for the tenth anniversary), American Gods combines mythology, alternate worlds, and straight-forward fiction to create one of the richest and most imaginative books published in the 21st century. I really can't recommend this book enough. It's long, it has two endings, its ending doesn't end anything, and every so often Gaiman tortures us with hints of a sequel, but it's still an amazing book. Plus, it has something for everyone: gods, demi-gods, I Love Lucy, zombies, leprechauns, and a really weird sex scene. I reread this book every couple years and I always find something different. So run out and pick up a copy of this book. It will change the way you look at everything — mythology, story-telling, history, magic. If you love it, it has a companion novel called Anansi Boys, which isn't a sequel or a prequel, but more of a parallel story. Gaiman has also set a novella in the same world, a story called The Monarch of the Glen.
This is a creepy book — but creepy in the best way, creepy like old fairy tales and myths, creepy in a way that returns to you years after you've read the last page. Coraline is considered a young reader book, but don't let that prejudice you: this short book won a Hugo Award, a Nebula Award, and a Bram Stoker Award. Coraline follows a young girl who finds a bricked-up door and decides to open it and explore. What she finds on the other side is both terrifying and sad, and Coraline's battle to return to her home will leave you breathless. In many ways, this story is a pretty typical fairy tale, but Gaiman's writing style and rather different perspective make this story all his own. If you're pressed for time, and can only read one Gaiman book, read this one. (A pretty awesome stop-motion film was made from this story, so be sure to check that out too.)
This is probably one of the oddest books on the list (and probably the most contentious). In 1996, Gaiman wrote a TV series; this book is the novelization of that series. In one of those quirky happenings that just don't happen, the book became more popular than the TV series. Neverwhere is the story of London Below and its strange inhabitants. While this book is obviously a sort of test run for the sort of themes that are explored much more thoroughly in American Gods, this is still a great book. (Indeed the parallels between Neverwhere and American Gods are strong: both books have "preferred versions," both look at alternate worlds, both contain gods, Gaiman has teased sequels to both. Still, Neverwhere is British and American Gods is American, so in some ways the parallels aren't as clear as all that.) This book isn't for everyone, and I've had many a conversation with Gaiman fans about how this book isn't quite up to snuff, but I like it and I'd suggest it to anyone who wants to read an unusual, eccentric, and relatively unknown Gaiman book.
This is definitely the most different of Gaiman's books. Stardust is quite solidly a fairy tale, written like a piece of high fantasy from the 40s or 50s. That doesn't mean its bad — it just means it's a lot different from the rest of Gaiman's work. While this book still showcases Gaiman's sense of humor and his use of detail, it doesn't feel like a Gaiman book. So why read it? It's a fascinating book, a book that takes fairy tales and turns them on their side. One the other hand, once you finish it, you'll feel like you've known its story since childhood--it has that sort of timelessness. In some ways, this is the best book to read first: it's short, it's gentle (though sad and melancholy in way not typical of fairy tales), and has a cast of memorable characters. Think of it like a Gaiman gateway drug: once you read this, you'll find yourself going back for more, until suddenly you realize you haven't read anything but Gaiman for the past six months and you don't even care.
5. The Graveyard Book
This is another book Gaiman has written for young people, but it's much different from Coraline. The Graveyard Book features a young boy named Bod Owens who is raised in a graveyard by ghosts (and a mysterious guardian who seems to be a vampire). The opening chapter is one of the most masterful chapters I've ever read. Gaiman manages to convey a triple-murder with such graceful vagueness that young readers won't be frightened and older readers won't be bored. Personally, I think Gaiman's attempt to make this book have a clean, complete ending makes the book lose some of its originality and strength, but the ride to the ending is well worth this disappointment. This would be a great book to follow-up Stardust, though it could also work as an alternate way to start reading Gaiman.
6. Honorable Mention: Good Omens
I came late to this book, but now I try to get everyone to read it. The only reason it's not on my list properly is because Gaiman co-wrote it with Terry Pratchett. However, that just means it's even better. This is a deeply British book, with elements of Douglas Adams and Monty Python, and maybe even a dash of Dr. Who, throughout. It's the funniest, wryest, most delightful take on the Apocalypse possible, with plenty of free will thrown in for good measure. You'll be introduced to demons, angels, the Antichrist, witches, witch-hunters, a pretty awesome car, and an even better bookstore. Basically, you have to drop everything and read this book. You will not be disappointed (unless you hate British humor — in which case you probably shouldn't even look at this book).