Yet another one suggested to me by my friend EJ, Neverwhere turned out to be probably the best book I've read in years. Mixing contemporary and modern fantasies together in a wonderful tale of life under the streets of London, Neil Gaiman has proven himself with this and his other works (most notably The Sandman and Smoke and Mirrors) as a leading writer of fantasy fiction in the modern day.
Neverwhere mixes up aspects of literary reality and references to myths and legends. It is reminiscent of work by Lewis Carrol (Alice in Wonderland), Stephen King (The Dark Tower series) and similar storybook-to-reality fantasies. Taking things such as London's panache for naming landmarks (Black Friar station, Shepherd Station, Knightsbridge, etc.) and using those names to create literary representations (the Black Friars themselves, as one fine example) of these places underneath their real counterparts in London Above.
This was a difficult book to put down. I blasted through it in two days, spending one night at the dining room table at home until about four in the morning until I could get to a point in the book where breaking from reading it wouldn't hamper the storyline. I never did find one, and allowed pure drowsiness decide for me. The book moves swiftly and easily along, and keeps the reader intrigued with different barely-explained wonders. You'll keep reading hoping to find an explanation for things like The Gap between the train and the platform or Nightsbridge, and you'll never quite get them. But before you can fret over lack of understanding on this part of London Below you are thrust along into another wonder, forget the previous gripe and plod along looking for the new explanation.
Within the book you are paired with main character Richard Mayhew, a typical everyman who is suddenly thrust into a world that has "fallen between the cracks" of the normal world's memory (hints of Avalon here). After helping what he at first thought to be a street urchin girl, he finds that he, too, has fallen beyond the world's memory and must now travel the dark tunnels beneath the streets, following, meeting and avoiding a delightful yet dark-shrouded collection of characters.
Gaiman's characters are very lively and developed, with interesting quirks and mannerisms. Favorites by far are Mr. Croup and Mr. Vandemar, underworld cutthroats out for a few bucks in odd jobs. Their bantering of one to the other in snide conversations and interaction with other characters are wonderfully written, given a comical touch with subtle, dark undertones that prevents them from becoming just another comic relief duo. Meanwhile the forgetful Earl's appearances keep the novel from tumbling into pure gothic horror by keeping things light and fluffy with a touch of delightfulness. If you're the type that goes for the strange and unusual creatures, you'll find a lot of fun meeting the Underworlders from Neverwhere.
If you think that Neverhwere is all ruffled vestments and quirky people, I must admit that while this helps make the novel move quicker, there is still plenty of intrigue within. There are mysteries to solve, ordeals to vanquish and deaths to wake up from. There are giant boars to fight in labyrinths deep beneath London, and doors to open to nowhere. Mayhew's quest and goal is to return to his old life in London Above, where he lead a typical workaday existence in a typical workaday world. By the end of his visit to London Below, he's questioning if this really is what he wants. And can you blame him?
So the next time you see a rat say hi. The next time you meet a bird, tell it a story. And the next time you find a sewer uncovered, drop into it and I'll meet you at the foot of Down Street.
"Neverwhere" by Neil
Published by Avon Books, Inc.
Copyright © 1996, 1997 by Neil Gaiman