I felt a strong connection to Richard Mayhew, the star of Neverwhere, because much like myself, he seemed to have no aims, goals, or motivations.
Allow me to frame this review for you. I have heard a lot about Neil Gaiman. I read and enjoyed Good Omens. I loved the movie Stardust. However, my only venture into his solo work was American Gods, and I found that to be a travesty, which everyone I have ever said this to, has then led me to the assurance that my intellect simply wasn’t up to the task of enjoying such avant garde and inspired fiction. And I agree. My wits simply couldn’t keep up with the fast paced world of man eating vaginas and gay, disappearing djinn.
When I think of urban fantasy, I think more Harry Dresden than Richard Mayhew.
Richard is our protagonist and starts the book surrounded by friends, drunk, and talking to mysterious women. That basically sums up the whole of the book, but this is a review, so let’s drag this out a bit, shall we?
We next meet Richard living in London several years later. His new thing is that he’s in a relationship with a woman, Jessica (not Jess), that is incredibly attractive, and he doesn’t quite understand how he managed to land such a catch. She’s also incredibly controlling, and while it comes across as a rather toxic relationship, it was actually a lot of fun to read. She knows all about how forgetful he is, and so reminds him before he needs to be reminded. She’s also aware of not only his forgetfulness, but his general unprofessionalism in most situations, and so coaches him through events that might flummox him in these regards. She’s basically an angel.
We get why he is with her: she’s hot. But why is she with him? No clues there, I’m afraid. She’s a go-getter and could have any guy she wants, but she chose an absent minded, but kind, dolt.
We meet an interesting cast of characters. Mr. Croup and Mr. Vandemar – two very proper, British gentleman, all round good guys, that have a proclivity and expertise for killing people. They also seem to be impervious to harm thanks to a distinct lack of bleeding, and preternatural senses.
Door. A proper noun (name), not a noun, in this instance. She appears as a homeless person, dying on the floor. Not to worry though, she later gets cleaned up and is confirmed to be pretty. Close one – I don’t know about you, but I was going to have a hard time caring about a main character if she wasn’t hot!
Her appearance was an interesting one. Jess, the callous lady-of-the-night that she’s presented as, steps over the dying Door and keeps rattling off her list of thing that Richard must, or more precisely must not do when he meets her boss. Richard stops to help poor Door, and seems flabbergasted that he’s dating this woman who was so quick to step over someone bleeding out right in front of her. I’ll give Richard that one. It seems a step too far, even for Jessica. Events occur, the magical couple break up, and we discover that Door is more than she seems. In fact, once she leaves Richard, something peculiar happens. People don’t notice him. He can’t hail a taxi. His work colleagues don’t notice he’s not at his desk. In fact, it turns out that this is no cruel practical joke, people aren’t just not noticing him, but he actually no longer exists in their minds.
He noticed Door because he’s the protagonist, and that’s why we’re following him. He’s the one that can focus on the London Below. Jessica didn’t step over a poor homeless person bleeding out on the pavement. Jessica’s brain couldn’t even comprehend what she was seeing, just like everyone else’s!
An interesting take on the “hidden world” side of urban fantasy. With this premise, it almost becomes a portal fantasy, as the normal world no longer even sees him. Except, that changes later in the book…
I feel like, perhaps, I skipped a major part during my zealous defence of a poor woman that was merely trying to uplift those around her.
Richard saves Door, respecting the very unreasonable request she makes of “no hospitals”. When she wakes up in his apartment, she tells how she’s being chased, is in danger, oh and could you be a dear Richard and go and find someone that will protect me. Richard, continuing his role of reactionary protagonist, does just that. I certainly don’t remember Jessica ever asking him to risk his life…
Gaiman puts together a nice little run through of London Below, and how it all seems contrary and bizarre, and clearly doesn’t conform to the world we know, London Above. Or at least, not regarding things like space and time. A ladder leading up from the sewers opens up to a ladder miles in the sky halfway up a building, and when Richard looks behind, the sewer exit he just came out of is nowhere to be seen. Classic stuff.
Anyway. Door leaves after Richard completes this side quest for her. Then no one can see him, and it turns out he’s existing in a world where he… well, doesn’t. Exist, that is.
Naturally, the next step is to go and find Door. Great! Richard has made his first decision of the book at the 20% mark. Find out why he doesn’t exist anymore.
Richard bumps into Hunter, who is described as the most beautiful woman he’s ever seen (I’m starting to think that maybe Richard simply hasn’t seen women before? That would explain all of this fascination).
Next up we have The Floating Market, where the illustrious Door and Richard finally reunite. Gaiman uses several pages to describe the panoply of different people, sights, smells, sounds, wares, and Harrods. Page time, that while a touch slow, was well used. It gave London Below a lived in, known feeling. Almost like the author wasn’t just making this up as he went along. Like he knew what was happening. The world building here was also the lull in the story before it really kicked off. Our protagonists are back together and they have just hired the world’s sexiest bodyguard. Exciting!
Then the book continues in a way that one would expect. People want things, and so try to get them (apart from Richard. He wants to return to his normal life, but does very little in the way of taking action. Which is probably realistic, but possibly not the greatest character to read about). There’s chases, fights, angels, general confrontation, secrets, intrigue. Everything you’d expect.
That’s quite enough of my spoilers, now. Oh wait, one more: Richard and Door do meet Jessica again at some point. Door describes her, charitably, as “clean”, so maybe it really is just through Richard’s lense that she is beautiful, and everyone else sees her as average. We also get a bit more of a glimpse into how potent the forgetting on London below is to people from London Above. I’ll admit, the rules seem wooly, but that is inline with Gaiman’s general approach to magic systems.
As mentioned, when I think of urban fantasy, I think of the more modern take, which is basically a power fantasy. Big magic, powerful demons etc. I’m into that. If i hadn’t been recommended Neverwhere so strongly, I doubt I’d have picked it up. I think that, despite the power differences between neverwhere and things such as the Dresden Files, the big change is the language. The wording. The verbage, if you will. A critic might refer to it as overly verbose. Convoluted. For example:
“There was something of the rotted ham about Mr Croup”.
Be honest with me now, is that a normal way of saying that sentiment?
Now, I’m by no means saying it’s a negative thing. I’m a writer myself, and I rather enjoy words and their acrobatic use. It’s a fun sentence. But you don’t get that kind of language in the type of novels I prefer. I take the stance that “words are the enemy”. I am trying to upload the images from my brain, directly into yours. Words are the medium by which I do that. So using complicated words where simple ones would suffice (see what I did there? I should have said “work”. Oh, me!) isn’t necessarily a positive thing. So, I’m torn on Gaiman’s use of language.
He also has Mr Croup refer to Richard and Door as “lambkin” at one point. Just as a point of interest, I find this totally acceptable, as it is said by a character, whereas the previous sentence was said in narration. Mr Croup has a delightful way of speaking and phrasing things that i enjoy reading.
Again, though. I’m torn. I aim for brevity, but words are fun.
However, when I’m forced to read a dream sequence for half a chapter, I lose interest. I find dream sequences inherently boring, and I don’t care if they’re meaningful or not. I just don’t like them, and boy do these ones drag. I think that’s my issue. I was very interested in certain story elements of Neverwhere, and had zero interest in others, but of course Gaiman gives them all the same amount of page time, and when I’m reading a heavy handed word fuck on something I don’t care about, I notice the language and see it as a negative. When i like the subject, i find the language fun and playful.
So again, I’m torn because whatever your feelings on such things, Gaiman does have you covered for good quotes, with such gems as:
“I have always felt that violence was the last refuge of the incompetent, and empty threats the final sanctuary of the terminally inept”
Beautiful! There are so many ways to say the same thing with less words, but I wouldn’t want this changed. In this case, it’s the language that bring the quote to life. That quote is infinitely better than “Violence is for idiots”.
What has this book done for me?
Well, it’s Gaiman’s standing in my eyes after the travesty that was American Gods. To the point that I might, might, read Stardust.
Final note. Anyone that has read this book will remember “The Ordeal”. This section was really good. No spoilers, as it’s well beyond the blurb, and not something that needs to be known to truly understand the book. But yeah, The Ordeal was a lovely bit of writing by Gaiman. Very hard hitting, evocative, and spoke to me. Great stuff.
Should you read it?
As always, my reviews are rather negative and focus on nitpicking things that don’t actually matter, but every guide I’ve ever read would easily place these in their “Top 10 things you shouldn’t do”. As an author, I know the struggle. Sometimes, you shouldn’t do these things, but sometimes, you definitely should. For example, did I actually care that Richard wasn’t the guy driving everything and having very clear goals and motivations, as my opening sentence implied? No, not really, I just thought that was a funny way to open my review.
Also, keep in mind that my spoilery reviews of these old books tend to stop giving you the plot after about the 50% mark. Does Neverwhere get better after the point I stopped giving spoilers? Hell yes. Things happen. Big things!
Ultimately, Neverwhere was a mediocre book for me. It had highlights that I will take forward with me, but the overall tone of the book just wasn’t something I enjoyed. Also, Gaiman ends the whole thing on a bit of an open and introspective note. Which, while many may love, I do not. I’ve got enough melancholy in my real life, thank you very much!
If you want a book that treads the line between trashy urban fantasy (my one true love), and literature (ugh), then Neverwhere hits that sweet spot. It’s a great crossover point for a fan of either genre that’s looking to jump into the other.
Rating: 2/5 (35%)
Favourite Character: Mr Croup.
Favourite Quote: “I have always felt that violence was the last refuge of the incompetent, and empty threats the final sanctuary of the terminally inept”