By Darren Franich
Updated June 14, 2013 at 04:00 AM EDT

Neil Gaiman is among the premier fantasists working in any storytelling medium, partly because he actually works in every storytelling medium. The British author’s diverse body of work includes one of the greatest comic books ever (The Sandman), a number of best-selling novels (such as American Gods and Anansi Boys), screenplays, and a couple of brilliant episodes of Doctor Who. In his best work Gaiman weaves together elaborately mythic fantasy and delicately observed humanity. But even his lesser creations sparkle with imagination.

So it is with The Ocean at the End of the Lane, which unfolds with a middle-aged man returning to his childhood English country home. He suddenly remembers a curious adventure from his youth, and the book tells the tale of how he met Lettie Hempstock, a strange girl living with her strange mother and her even stranger grandmother. The Hempstocks are immortals — in Gaimanland, such a revelation is casual, like saying you’re from Sussex — and his friendship with them leads to dark encounters with mystical creatures.

The boy winds up under the heel of the demonic Ursula Monkton, a governess who suggests an evil Mary Poppins. She’s a fascinating character — whenever she appears, you can feel the book come to life — but Gaiman doesn’t quite know what to do with her. Or with anything, for that matter. The narrator is never named, but he’s clearly a Gaiman analog, and the description of his rural upbringing has the pleasant specificity of autobiography. Unfortunately, the protagonist is also the novel’s least compelling character. As a coming-of-age reverie, Ocean is a fitfully interesting trifle, but you’re constantly catching glimpses of a more interesting, darker, stranger tale farther down the lane. B-

The Opening Line

”It was only a duck pond, out at the back of the farm. It wasn’t very big. Lettie Hempstock said it was an ocean, but I knew that was silly. She said they’d come here across the ocean from the old country.”