Book Review – Neverwhere

NeverwhereNeverwhere by Neil Gaiman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book has been on my list to read for years. Gaiman’s other work, like American Gods and the Sandman series, has never failed to impress, weaving new mythologies out of old. Too, among my circle of friends and fellow writers, Neverwhere is a touchstone for the “under city” story, the sort of tale that tells us that a magical, through-the-looking-glass version of our everyday world is right here alongside it, if we could only find the right key, magic mirror, or door.

And this novel starts with Door, to be more precise, a young woman from the other side of London (“London Below,” as Gaiman calls it) whose noble family is known for their special knack for opening things–doors, boxes, portals. She’s the lone survivor after her parents and siblings are murdered, and now the hired killers are chasing her down, too. Injured, she opens a portal into London Above–the London we know in the ordinary world. Thus, the events of the novel are set in motion. It will follow Door’s quest to find out who killed her family and why, of course, and eventually to overcoming the villain behind it all. There will be a cryptic message in her father’s journal, a floating market, a magical key, allies and adversaries, and betrayal. Of course. The lovely thing about reading Gaiman is that, as when reading a fairy tale or ancient epic, somehow knowing the beats of the story doesn’t eliminate the tension, the surprises, or suspense. We want to know as much as Door does what is really going on in London Below.

Door’s name is literally her function in the story. The protagonist is actually Richard, whose interaction with Door leads him into the story. A typical Gaiman everyman, the sort of basically decent, passive guy Simon Pegg usually plays, Richard comes from the ordinary world. For the sin of helping Door when she is wounded, he finds his regular existence erased from London Above. His co-workers and fiancée don’t recognize him, his apartment is let out to new tenants, and the ATM doesn’t register his PIN number. As he is forced to pass into London Below, it’s primarily through Richard’s eyes that Gaiman reveals the under city, a technique that lets the reader get extended exposition about the place. Richard asks the questions and says aloud what the reader is thinking. But he is not just a device, Richard is an effective and sympathetic character in his own right: the ordinary man who, for once, has to reconsider his life and what he wants from it, instead of what’s comfortable and easy. It bodes well for him that his first significant act is helping a stranger on the street, when his fiancée and the world around him advise callous indifference. Does Richard find he has reserves of strength he never knew he had? We know from the beginning he will, and yet it’s no less satisfying when he does.

To create London Below, where people who “fell through the cracks” end up, Gaiman takes the abandoned and underground parts of real London, and spins them into something magical and just this side of bizarre. Much of it comes from imaginative leaps off the subway map. Earl’s Court turns into a subway car containing a moldering medieval court. Blackfriars is an order of monks who pose a series of three trials to obtain a magical key. Knightsbridge is a real bridge where Night (no K) is a potent darkness that torments and even kills those who trying to cross. Hammersmith is a blacksmith, there are real shepherds in Shepherd’s Bush, and a real angel named Islington under Angel. The boundary between London Above and London Below is porous, so that the floating market of London Below can easily take over Harrod’s for an evening, and yet metaphysically rigid: residents of London Below are all but invisible to those in Above–overlooked, ignored, and forgotten as soon as they are spotted or heard.

This includes several characters who are basically the homeless of London, living in its sewers and abandoned tunnels, and busking for money in the Underground. Animals–pigeons, rats, and one significant piglet–pass between the two Londons unnoticed. A more ideological writer than Gaiman might make some commentary out of this; the idea of society’s castoffs living in a shadowy netherworld has obvious sociopolitical implications. But Gaiman is more interested in the magical and cosmic than the political, and the story never takes on a class analysis, or environmental parable, or sympathetic interest in the lives of animals. That piglet only matters because, having escaped from the butcher centuries ago, s/he has grown into a monstrous Beast, ready to menace our heroes.

That’s not to say the story is unsatisfying, or lacks progressive qualities. It’s refreshing how readily Gaiman populates his story with female and non-white characters, without making a big deal about it. As in real-world London, characters are as likely to be dark or brown or female as anything else. That includes the Marquis de Carabas, a tour-de-force trickster-type who aids Door because “she’ll owe him a very big favor.” De Carabas was easily my favorite character, a man with flair and confidence to spare, and a keen dislike of admitting ignorance about anything (maybe this is something we have in common). I kept waiting for the moment he tipped from lovable rogue to treacherous villain…and that’s a fine line for an author to walk. Gaiman does it well.

And then there’s Hunter. She’s a legendary warrior and well, hunter, hired to be Door’s bodyguard. She’s laconic, beautiful, caramel-skinned, amazing in combat, and a wee bit sarcastic. I immediately liked her. (What is it about female warriors we just can’t get enough of? Atalanta, Xena, Buffy, Brienne…) As some of Hunter’s back story is revealed and her primary motivation (to put another notch on her belt by killing the Beast) I was still on board. The character felt vibrant and noble, and while I didn’t like her occupation, I liked her. Alas, ultimately, the gender-bending aspect of Hunter became less important to me than the story’s implicit glorification of hunting. It occurred to me, three-quarters of the way through, that I was cheering for a character who’s really the fantasy equivalent of a big-game hunter. In the end, while Gaiman is often amazingly imaginative and unique and surprising, he isn’t writing anything new. The Beast dies in the end, because the Beast exists in the story to be a monster for the hero to slay. While Neverwhere may be creating a new mythology, there’s no new model of heroism.

The novel is well-worth the reading, though, for the images, for the characters, for the setting–to open the possibilities of what an author could do with this sort of tale. In the way I loved American Gods and Sandman, I loved Neverwhere, like candy to my myth-soaked mind.

From here, I’m moving on to Un Lun Dun, China Mieville’s novel with a similar, alterna-London theme.

View all my reviews

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