Neverwhere, by Neil Gaiman

>> Sunday, November 25, 2012

TITLE: Neverwhere
AUTHOR: Neil Gaiman

PAGES: 400
PUBLISHER: William Morrow

SETTING: 1990s alternate version of London
TYPE: Urban fantasy
SERIES: Not that I know of

Under the streets of London there's a world most people could never even dream of. A city of monsters and saints, murderers and angels, and pale girls in black velvet.

Richard Mayhew is a young businessman who is about to find out more than he bargained for about this other London. A single act of kindness catapults him out of his safe and predictable life and into a world that is at once eerily familiar and yet utterly bizarre.

There's a girl named Door, an Angel called Islington, an Earl who holds Court on the carriage of a Tube train, a Beast in a labyrinth, and dangers and delights beyond imagining... And Richard, who only wants to go home, is to find a strange destiny waiting for him below the streets of his native city.
Richard Mayhew has a very normal, even boring life. He has a job in finance he doesn't really care about, a fianceƩ who bosses him around and whom he finds a bit intimidating, and no particularly good friends. Still, he's relatively content. And then, everything changes. One evening, while walking to a restaurant with his fianceƩ, Jessica, he almost stumbles over a young woman who's clearly injured. Jessica wants him to at most call an ambulance, but Richard feels obliged to help, and ends up taking the young woman (who refuses to go to hospital) home with him.

The woman is called Door, and she's from what she calls London Below, an alternative world lying beneath the London Richard knows. Door, it turns out, is the daughter of one of its prominent family, a family known for being able to open anything (thus her name; her father was Portico). Door's family has just been slaughtered by two hired killers, who've come back to finish the job and kill her as well. Before they catch her, Door is able to open a door into London Above, and falls into Richard's path.

Richard manages to help Door and hide her from the killers, and when she leaves, that's supposed to be the end of it. But then Richard starts realising that he's become practically invisible in his world. Taxis won't stop for him and his landlord rents out his flat to someone else. He's now a citizen of London Below as well, and singularly unprepared for it, so he has no choice but to throw in his lot with Door and join her on her quest to find out who ordered her family killed.

I read Neverwhere for my book club. Interesting as the plot sounds, I've come to realise, after several unsuccessful experiments, that urban fantasy just isn't my thing. Some have worked a bit better than others (most recently, Ben Aaronovitch's Rivers of London series), but there's something about the griminess of it, and how it's so often about political infighting, that doesn't appeal to me.

This didn't change my mind about it. I can recognise it's an ok example of the genre, but I didn't enjoy it much. And even if I enjoyed the subgenre, I suspect I might have had some issues with it.

The main one is that Richard is a complete non-entity. He's not particularly intelligent and he just reacts to things. Of course, in the end he turns out to be crucial to Door's quest, but all seems to happen almost by accident. The only time he ever takes action rather than go with the flow is when he chooses to help Door, against Jessica's wishes. It was a good start, but that's it. It never happens again. He's just... boring. And just to make it clear, my objections to Richard aren't about masculinity, or anything like that. A female character like this would drive me just as mad.

The rest of the characters... well, they were really cool, but I just couldn't find it in me to care one whit about what would happen to them. I didn't connect to them at all.

You would think the worldbuilding would be outstanding here, and indeed, it's an interesting idea for a universe. The problem is it's left a bit too undefined. I could picture it in my mind just fine, so it wasn't an issue with Gaiman's descriptions. It was more that when I closed the book, I didn't feel I understood it. So, how do things WORK here? How do people end up in this world? Is it all like Richard? I've no idea.



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