Saturday, May 21, 2022

"Neverwhere" by Neil Gaiman--Fiction Review

We’re going in for some fantasy and a little bit of horror with this one, Obscurists. Today’s review is on Neil Gaiman’s “Neverwhere.”

Neil Gaiman

***The Non-Spoiler part of this review***

What I love about this book:

The first thing that I love about this book is you never quite manage to get your bearings before it’s on to another weird and uncanny location. Like the protagonist, Richard Mayhew, as the audience follows him along throughout London below, we’re never sure what the next location will bring. 

Also, this book is way creepier than I thought it would be, which keeps happening to me with every Neil Gaiman book I read. I think it’s because of how whimsically he writes everything with a dash of dry humor that always suckers me. It’s hard to explain what Gaiman’s stories feel like, but the closest I can think of is someone in an Easter Bunny costume. Soft and fluffy, joyfully playful, until you finally realize there is no one in the bunny costume, just a sentient swarm of bees somehow controlling it.

So yeah, a bit like that.

I love the inherent weirdness of that feeling, and when he makes the shift into threatening with his menacing characters, you absolutely believe they’re capable of anything.

What I don’t love about this book:

I like all of the characters in this novel, even our everyman protagonist Richard Mayhew. I don’t get why Mayhew wants to get back to his boring life so bad, other than the fact that London below is a pretty dangerous place. His fiancé was pretty heartless, and his job seemed stressful and unrewarding.

The motivations for all of the characters were fleshed out, and you understood why they were doing what they were doing—except for the two evil henchmen characters. They were just sadists and creepy because they like being sadists and creepy, which is uninteresting to me. 

Without spoiling anything, the ending didn’t really happen where I thought, which seems to be another Gaiman thing that I could take or leave. In this, the end feels like it went on too long to get to its point.

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***The Spoiler part of this review***
***Ye be warned to turn back now***

The quick and dirty synopsis:

Richard Mayhew is living a perfectly ordinary life in London. He’s engaged to an ambitious, beautiful woman, and his job is firmly middle of the road. On their way to dinner—a very important dinner for Richard’s fiancé’s career—they encounter a badly injured young woman. Richard’s fiancé essentially just wants to leave her, but Richard, after hearing the young woman doesn’t want to go to a hospital for mysterious reasons, doesn’t hesitate. He scoops up the injured girl and takes her home to tend to her wounds, leaving his flabbergasted ex-fiancé on the sidewalk.

Richard didn’t know it with that act of kindness, but he had just taken his first steps into a whole new world that he knew nothing about before—a world of magic and monsters. The young woman, oddly named Door—recovered in Richard’s apartment, thanks to him and with the help of some rats she apparently seems to be able to talk to, goes home to London below.

But Richard isn’t so lucky. The next day he finds nobody at his office recognizes him. In fact, they don’t even seem to notice him unless he forces them to focus on him. It gets worse, Richard’s pseudo invisibility goes so far that his landlord rents out his apartment right from under him, and when the new tenants are looking around the apartment for the first time, they don’t even notice that Richard is still there.

From there, Richard finds he has no choice but to descend into the weird world of London below, which until recently, he didn’t even know that it existed. There he hopes to find Door and understand what is happening to him. He’s almost immediately nearly killed by rat people—not people who are rats, but people who speak to rats, and the rats speak back.

Instead of killing Richard, one of the rat speakers eventually takes Richard along to the market, an odd gathering that is perilous to get to, but still, the residents of London below make the journey. Richard’s guide seems to be taken mysteriously on the bridge to the markets, but he gains a new one, in a woman called Hunter.

With Hunter’s help, Richard finds Door, who is holding an audition for bodyguards to protect her from the murderous assassins hunting her. With some advice from another mysterious character, the Marquis de Carabas, Hunter becomes that bodyguard. They all then set out to find the Angel Islington, which is precisely what it sounds like—a literal angel. Door needs to find the Angel so that she might discover who had her parents murdered.

After meeting with the Angel—and a series of misadventures, where the Marquis is seemingly murdered and resurrected, they find out that the Angel Islington is who had Door’s family murdered. Islington wanted to create a situation where they could escape their imprisonment and get Door, who can open any door, where needed. Door tricks Islington and appropriately seems to send the fallen Angel, with thugs, to hell.

Once the Angel is defeated, Richard can return to his life in London above. After a sad farewell, he leaves his friends and returns to his old life and job, but not his fiancé. Eventually, though, Richard finds he can’t tolerate his old life anymore and longs to return to London below, and with the Marquis de Carabas’s help, he succeeds.


“Neverwhere” is one of those seemingly rarer fantasy books with a lot of magic, but it doesn’t grind the plot to a crawl to explain it. I feel this is more a quality in a lot of Gaiman’s books—if not all of them—than just this one, but I still like it quite a lot in this book.

Now, I know, I know, that sounds like a bad thing—rigorously defined magic systems in novels are cool, and the hip thing to do, and hip is totally a hip thing to still say in today’s day and age. So two points I want to draw on to defend my position here on why a well-defined magic system isn’t necessary for “Neverwhere.” The first point is that there is a well-defined magic system in “Neverwhere,” just not well known by our point of view character, who finds it incomprehensible. It makes sense to all of the characters around Richard, though. The second point of defense is that the whole character drama of this story relies on the idea that Richard is thrust into this magical underground society and doesn’t know how anything—anything—works.

Gaiman can go against the grain of contemporary fantasy storytelling because—one, he’s fucking NEIL GAIMAN, of course, he can, and two because the other fundamental elements of fiction in this book are so good that it doesn’t need to engage in that way.

Parting thoughts:

So, I’m about to share another opinion I’m pretty sure is unpopular. Anymore I find rigorously defined magical systems that are explained and re-explained in greater and greater detail throughout a hyper-long book—isn’t as impressive to me as it once was in the past.

In fact, much like world-building, I worry that it becomes the sole preoccupation of aspiring authors who then lose focus on the fundamental building blocks of a story—those being: who are the characters, why do we care about them, what is happening to them, when and where is this happening? 

Yes, I stole that from journalism. Yes, I was trained as a journalist. Is that going well? About as well as you might imagine for a blogger who works at a bank full time.

The five W’s apply to fiction as well as journalistic stories as well. A good plot is a plot that concerns itself with people and their experiences. We come for the dragons, the mecha battles, the space piracy, the romance—but we stay or don’t because of the characters. If we don’t care about those people, then the most intricately woven plot, with all the most wonderfully nuanced and thought-out settings, is still lifeless.

Finely tuned magical systems with rules and loopholes and all that other fun stuff to think about are great—like in “Harry Potter” or any of Brandon Sanderson’s books. But it is a tool, not a story, just like world-building. They’re tools to enhance a plot and the characters who inhabit that plot. When the book’s point becomes about that tool instead of its character’s journey, that book has gone flat.

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