Review: Neverwhere by Neil GaimanNeverwhere by Neil Gaiman
Published by Harper Collins on March 17, 2009
Genres: Urban Fantasy
Pages: 480
Source: Purchased

“Neil Gaiman is undoubtedly one of the modern masters of fantasy writing....For those who have not read Neverwhere, the new edition is the one to read, and is a fitting introduction to Gaiman’s adult fiction....American readers can experience this spellbinding, magical world the way that Neil Gaiman wanted us to all along.”  —Huffington Post

The #1 New York Times bestselling author’s ultimate edition of his wildly successful first novel featuring his “preferred text”—and including his special Neverwhere tale, “How the Marquis Got His Coat Back”.

Published in 1997, Neil Gaiman’s darkly hypnotic first novel, Neverwhere, heralded the arrival of a major talent and became a touchstone of urban fantasy.

It is the story of Richard Mayhew, a young London businessman with a good heart and an ordinary life, which is changed forever when he discovers a girl bleeding on the sidewalk. He stops to help her—an act of kindness that plunges him into a world he never dreamed existed. Slipping through the cracks of reality, Richard lands in Neverwhere—a London of shadows and darkness, monsters and saints, murderers and angels that exists entirely in a subterranean labyrinth. Neverwhere is home to Door, the mysterious girl Richard helped in the London Above. Here in Neverwhere, Door is a powerful noblewoman who has vowed to find the evil agent of her family’s slaughter and thwart the destruction of this strange underworld kingdom. If Richard is ever to return to his former life and home, he must join Lady Door’s quest to save her world—and may well die trying.

Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere is an urban fantasy classic, an iconic title that’s been adapted into a radio play, a television mini-series, and a comic book. Clearly, it’s a story beloved by many…but it just slightly missed the mark for me.

Richard Mayhew throws his life off its predictable course with a single act of kindness. Spotting a wounded girl lying in the street, Richard offers her help and quickly finds himself in over his head. The Lady Door is the last surviving member of a magical aristocratic line, and she’s being hunted by the ruthless assassing Mr. Vandermar and Mr. Croup. The plot that unfolds is fairly typical: Richard overcomes increasingly difficult obstacles to prove himself a hero and change his perspective on himself and the people around him.

Neverwhere’s strength is not in its story telling but in its world building, with the introduction to Lady Door’s home: the uncanny valley that is London Below.  London Below is home to those who’ve slipped through the cracks of our reality, no longer belonging to the city we all know. It exists outside of our understanding of time and space, home to the relics and discards of time immemorial. London Below is also where regular people who spend too much time in the company of the supernatural may find themselves. If Richard isn’t careful, he may find himself unable to return to London Above.

London Below is beautifully brought to life thanks to Gaiman’s quirky writing and wry humour. There’s something very matter-of-fact about Gaiman’s writing, but somehow that doesn’t detract from the whimsy of the world he’s built. Gaiman manages to highlight the strange charm and haunting atmosphere of the overlooked spaces, whether it’s an abandoned hospital full of murderous squatters or a filthy basement den of magical rats and their street urchin lackeys.

I appreciated the social commentary about how easily someone can become unhoused, invisible in a society that doesn’t know how to respond to homelessness.

One of the things I liked best about Neverwhere is just how gross London Below – and London Above – truly are. Yes, there’s beauty to be found in both there, but don’t let it fool you.  Whether it’s the London we know or the magical underbelly, both are dank, dirty, places where desperate people fight to live another day. Many of the odd-ball citizens of London Below are clearly inspired by homeless people, folks living rough and trading in what they have to get a decent meal. I appreciated the social commentary, unsubtle as it was, about how easily someone can become unhoused and invisible in a society that doesn’t know how to look at or speak about homelessness.

Unfortunately, as much as I enjoyed the world of London Below, I just couldn’t get on board with the painfully straightforward storyline and characters. Richard is a bumbling everyman type who’s oblivious to his own appeal, strangely drawn to every woman and girl in the entire story. I found him quite off-putting that I actually preferred the bloodthirsty mini-villains, Mr. Vandermar and Mr. Croup. I spent most of the book really annoyed that the Marquis de Carabas was wasted as a secondary character while the human dishmop that is Richar Mayhew took centre stage. What a missed opportunity.

Neverwhere is an inventive and witty urban fantasy, but don’t come looking for a thrilling plot or winning characters.