Wednesday, February 8, 2012
Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman
I've never actually read a Neil Gaiman novel before. I've read the first Sandman collection and Good Omens, there was also a poem in Welcome to Bordertown, but Sandman is a graphic novel and Good Omens was co written with Terry Pratchett, so I was looking forward to the opportunity the list provided me with to check out one of fantasy's hottest properties.
Neverwhere started life as a TV programme, although Gaiman himself said that every time they made him cut something from the programme he said he'd include it in the book. Neverwhere is Neil Gaiman's first actual novel, Good Omens came out some years earlier, but as pointed out above that was a co authored project.
It's the story of Richard Mayhew, an unremarkable young man, who stops to help an injured girl en route to a dinner with his pretty, but shallow and unpleasant fiancee; Jessica, and her powerful media mogul boss, and finds himself rubbing shoulders with all sorts of unusual types in the world of London Below (the Neverwhere of the title), while avoiding Messrs Croup and Vandemar; a team of assassins, who delight in inflicting pain.
Whilst in London Below Richard encounters all sorts of oddities. The creatures who lend their names to places he knows in London Above, the blacksmith who goes by the name of Hammersmith, the shadowy information trader Old Bailey and the Angel called Islington.
Richard is an interesting hero, mainly because he's not particularly heroic. He's not physically imposing, he goes about his daily business efficiently, but quietly, he shies away from any sort of conflict and he's easily rail roaded into things, he doesn't even particularly like Jessica, but he's going to marry her, simply because he doesn't know how to get out of the relationship, which he seemed to fall into by accident. He does however have heroic qualities about him. He's compassionate, he assists Door even though he doesn't have to and he knows it will cause problems with Jessica. He's brave, he hides Door from Croup and Vandemar even though they scare him and he knows that they can physically hurt him. He's loyal, he's the one who takes over when Hunter betrays her companions and him.
The setting was extraordinary although the language Gaiman used wasn't particularly remarkable, this may have been because the novel was essentially an adaptation of a TV show and the initial script relied upon the visual medium to convey to the watcher what they were seeing. London Below is at once strange, dark and dreamlike. There are elements of Alice's Adventures in Wonderland in Neverwhere, although it is darker than Lewis Carroll's work. Neil Gaiman may have a particular affinity with that classic, there is a scene in Sandman that shows a bookcase filled with books that were never written and one of those is a continuation of young Alice's adventures.
Once out of London Below and living his quiet life in London Above, although significantly improved from the one he left, Richard wants to go back to the world where rats talk and you meet mythical creatures at the Floating Market. He does find the world he left behind and the book closes with Richard returning to London Below.
Neil Gaiman hasn't written a sequel to any of his work, but he has occasionally considered returning to the Neverwhere concept. Things have been written, but not completed and it remains to be seen if a new installment will ever appear, it was left open ended enough that this is a possibility if the author ever wants to do so.
It shares similarities with a number of other hidden world type stories, the darkness recalls Clive Barker's Weaveworld, and Simon Green's Nightside series (beginning with Something From The Nightside) set in a hidden London, I read the first one of these and wasn't greatly impressed. I also kept flashing on Catherynne M. Valente's Hugo nominated work Palimpsest and can highly recommend that if for no other reason that an opportunity to read Ms Valente's amazing prose.