Richard Mayhew lives a well organised, boring life in London and doesn’t reflect much on his situation. All this changes when he decides to help a girl he finds bleeding in the street one night. She introduces him to the unseen world of London Below, a place of magic both light and dark.
Stories are told and retold, and there’s nothing new under the sun, and genre fiction tends to be rather samey regardless of which genre you look at. Perhaps nowhere in recent years is this more obvious than in the genre of quest fantasy, which has been inundated with thousands of series and franchises ever since fantasy hit big a couple of decades ago. At its heart, Neverwhere has the same basic outline as most such books: you’ve got your basic nobody who goes on a journey to discover the world and himself, you’ve got your magical realm to explore, you’ve got your colourful main and secondary villains, and you’ve got your Dungeons & Dragons style plotline where you need to gather magical items, followers and information in order to combat Evil with a capital E and a capital vil. It’s lucky, then, that story is the least important of Neverwhere’s attributes.
It constitutes, in fact, a rather odd and tasty collection of both influences and fresh ideas. Richard Mayhew is very much like Arthur Dent in The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, a clueless and not too bright little man who at first just gets dragged along for the ride, and much humour arises from his ordinariness and reactions to what he’s subjected too. This is a dark novel, but Richard’s point of view – and the way others regard him – brings an unexpected note of levity which makes the whole book all the more fun.
So what is it he gets himself into? Well, that’s the big joy here. The relatively clever plot is set primarily in London Below, an incredibly richly imagined world in which Gaiman manages to both have his cake and eat it: he weaves an ornate, detailed tapestry of hierarchies, characters, traditions and history of a twilight land situated in the London sewers, subways and catacombs, where squalor and craziness abounds and even aristocratic splendor has a touch of silliness about it, but at the same time he refrains from explaining too much away, which is a stroke of brilliance. Magic remains magic only for as long as it remains mysterious, and we’re never given full explanations of many of the phenomena Richard encounters.
The horrifically droll assassins Croup and Vandemar, for example – just what are they and where did they come from? How and when did the pseudo-feudal society underground evolve? Why is it that certain people have “Knacks” (supernatural abilities) of varying types? These questions and many others are never answered, and we learn only what is needed for the narrative and for bringing London Below to pulsating life. The rest stays shrouded in darkness, so that we never have to be disabused of the notion we’re given that it is a place of endless possibility and enchantment.
It should also be mentioned that Gaiman uses one of his great trademark techniques here, which is to take something familiar and subverting it into something previously unimagined. In American Gods it was everything from divine pantheons to American roadside attractions. In Neverwhere it’s the London Tube, homeless people and the very names of London’s various townships.
Neverwhere is dark, funny, gleefully preposterous and sometimes very nasty indeed, but above all its fantasy isn’t just a genre denominator or a brand indicator: it really is created by a mind whose imagination flies high, free and virtually unfettered, one of those rare minds which can give you that “ooh” feeling instead of that “oh this again” feeling. In light of that, it’s all right that the story itself remains the same.
Rating: 8 of 10.