Friday, April 20, 2012

Book Review of "Neverwhere" by Neil Gaiman

Neil Gaiman is one of the most highly-acclaimed authors writing in the fantasy genre today. He is lucky enough to have several film and television adaptations of his work. In at least one case, he wrote a novel based on his own television miniseries. That novel is "Neverwhere".

The plot follows Richard Mayhew, a timid businessman living in London. He's going nowhere at his job. He's engaged to a controlling woman but doesn't seem to mind.

One evening, on the way to an important dinner with his financee and her boss, he stops to help an exhausted street girl he finds bleeding on the sidewalk.  He assists the harried girl into his apartment.  Unfortunately for him, the girl is a dweller of London Below, a strange faerie realm that exists in the old tunnels, sewers and subway systems beneath the city.  London Below is populated by street people, sewer dwellers, people who speak to rats, ragged courts of nobles and monsters. 

Simply by interacting with the girl, Door, he phases out of the reality of London Above and is forgotten by everybody he knew.  Like the other residents of London Below, he is ignored by average people, and when noticed, dismissed quickly and forgetten.  He loses his identity, machines stop working for him, and he becomes a nobody.

Convinced that Door can help him return to his old life, he follows her into London Below, attaching himself to her quest to discover why her father was murdered.  Accompanied by the bodyguard Hunter and a swashbuckling Marquis, they wander London Below for clues, all the while stalked by the ageless assassins Mr. Croup and Mr. Vandemar.

"Neverwhere" is the second novel of Gaiman's I have read, the other being "American Gods".  I am sorry to say that I am not very impressed.  I say "sorry" because I very much want to love these books.  "Neverwhere" treads literary territory that I love, steeped in history, fantasy, and the supernatural.   Croup and Vandemar are villains straight from Dickens, inspiring fear and laughter at the same time.  London Below is richly imagined.  There are many, many things about this book to admire. 

What drags down Gaiman's book, for me, is his writing style.  I found the narrative to be overly-cutesy.  It is full of turns-of-phrase that sound wonderful when spoken aloud in conversational speech, but, on the page, need to be re-read to fully understand the meaning.  This happens often enough that it becomes distracting and winking, as if to say, "Look at how funny I'm being." 

I also have issues with the plot.  Richard is thrown into events which he, at first, does not understand, nor does the reader.  As Door and her entourage travel the underworld, their wanderings at first seem aimless.  Once the reader has gained an accurate idea of the quest, it seems a bit shallow.  Typically, when characters go on a literary quest, there are consequences for their failure, such as a nation being overrun or the world ending.  Not here, and it made me care less about the outcome.  It is only until the climax of the book that we discover something awful could happen if they fail.  And even then, it's still kind of unclear why or how the forces of evil will triumph and why it's so bad if they succeed in their plan.  I won't say more for fear of spoilers. 

I am very interested to read a more-recent Neil Gaiman book to see if his narration has matured.  As it stands, I am underwhelmed with his 90's novels and their weak narration, but love his work in more visual media such as movies and comics.  Once again, I need to repeat that there are so many things about Neverwhere that are great.  It therefore rends my heart to give it:
3 lame-duck protagonists out of 5

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