Warning: Wikipedia contains spoilers
It belongs with the third collection, Dream Country, and the eighth, Worlds' End, as collections of separate short stories which mostly do not contribute directly to the overall story arc of the series, although it does contain the story "Orpheus", which is in fact central to the main story. This is illustrative of the fact that Brief Lives is the most uncomfortable of the ten Sandman collections. It is clearly something of a miscellany, a dump for all the odds and ends that did not fit into other collections; it is not, unlike the five collections which precede it, a sequential set of issues. To be precise, it contains a story from Vertigo Preview #1 plus issues #31, #29, #38, #30, #39, Sandman Special #1, #40 and #50, in that order. It therefore lacks something in thematic and artistic consistency that is present even in the other short story collections; one of the more oddly compelling consistencies is that four of the stories are named after months.
Fear of Falling This is the story from Vertigo Preview #1. This is a very short story, concerning a theatrical author/director who is afraid of the consequences of his new play, be they success or failure. It serves mostly as an introduction to the series and to the character of Morpheus, and thus sits a little uncomfortably this far into the series of collections, but makes its points nonetheless.
Three Septembers and a January A playful story concerning the (mostly true) history of Joshua Abraham Norton, first, last and only Emperor of the United States of America. Neatly dovetailed with his story is an explanation for his strange career centring on a challenge between Morpheus and Despair.
Thermidor An altogether darker story set in the aftermath of the French Revolution. Introducing the character of Lady Johanna Constantine and also, briefly, Orpheus, it is possibly the most political passage of the series, showing Gaiman at his most savagely critical of a regime that goes against his own beliefs almost entirely; a regime which did its best to abolish history, even introducing its own calendar, is entirely at odds with Gaiman's belief in the vital importance of human stories.
August Another story concerning a month. An extremely bleak tale about the Roman Emperor Augustus Caesar. Disguised as a beggar, he talks of his life to the dwarf who instructs him in this disguise. We learn that as a young man, he was raped by his great-uncle, the first Emperor Julius Caesar; and we learn that Augustus chose the future of the world from two sets of prophecies, one in which the Roman Empire grew to cover the whole world and lasted millennia, and one in which it died out after a few hundred years. We also learn that he spends one day a year disguised as a beggar because Morpheus told him, in a dream, that if he does so the gods cannot spy on his plans.
Soft Places A story of Marco Polo as a boy becoming lost in the desert; he enters one of the Soft Places, a place where the boundary between reality and the Dreaming is not so clear as it is in most places. There he encounters Rustichello of Pisa, Gilbert (or Fiddler's Green), who featured in the second collection, The Doll's House, and Morpheus himself. The story is something of a piece with "Exiles", a story from the tenth collection, The Wake.
Orpheus This is the central story of the collection. It is a telling of part of the Greek myth of Orpheus, in a similar vein to the story "A Midsummer Night's Dream" from the third collection, Dream Country; behind the main story Gaiman layers an explanation and interpretation based on his own characters, as Morpheus and Calliope are the boy's parents, and his uncle Destruction and aunt Death are vital in allowing him to reach the underworld, after the death of his wife. Gaiman's version of the story reinforces the tragedy of Orpheus with the different, subtler tragedy of his parents, both Morpheus and Calliope, part of which is echoed in the seventh collection, Brief Lives.
A Parliament of Rooks This story introduces Daniel - the child of Morpheus and Hippolyta Hall, a story told in the second collection, The Doll's House - as an independent character. It is a story featuring stories, a device that is used extensively in the eighth collection, Worlds' End, as Cain, Abel, Eve and Daniel gather for a storytelling session. The stories told concern the three wives of Adam, how Cain and Abel came to reside in the Dreaming, and the natural phenomenon, the parliament of rooks. In a series of panels illustrated by Jill Thompson[?], this story introduces the so-called "'Lil Endless" characters, renditions of Morpheus and Death as children, who came to be very popular with fans of the series.
Ramadan A stunning story told and beautifully illustrated (and lettered) in the Arabic tradition. The Caliph Haroun al-Raschid rules over the brilliant city of Baghdad, the greatest city the world has ever seen; but he is troubled by the impermanence of this very perfection. He goes to the very top of his palace and threatens to shatter a crystal globe full of demons, if Morpheus will not come and talk to him. His bluff is called, and he drops the globe; Morpheus appears to catch it, however, and he and Al Raschid go to the marketplace to talk. (It is significant that Morpheus waits until the globe is dropped before appearing. Morpheus, it seems, responds not to threats but to actions.) Al Raschid proposes a unique bargain; he will give the city of Baghdad to Morpheus, if Morpheus preserves it in the Dreaming forever. Morpheus takes the bargain, and the city, in a bottle; the story ends with an abrupt shift to war-torn modern-day Baghdad, where an old man has been telling this tale to a young child in exchange for money and cigarettes. This is perhaps the most perfect single story in the Sandman series, a brilliantly written and illustrated piece about the value of dreams (and, of course, stories).
The issues in the collection first appeared in 1991, 1992 and 1993. The collection first appeared in paperback and hardback in 1993.