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Neverwhere
by Neil Gaiman
Avon Books, 1998. Paperback. 388 pages.
ISBN 0380789019 (buy at Amazon.co.uk)
Bought on 1 December 1998 at Amazon.com for $7.99
Neverwhere's protagonist, Richard Mayhew, learns the hard way that no good deed goes unpunished. He ceases to exist in the ordinary world of London Above, and joins a quest through the dark and dangerous London Below, a shadow city of lost and forgotten people, places, and times. His companions are Door, who is trying to find out who hired the assassins who murdered her family and why; the Marquis of Carabas, a trickster who trades services for very big favors; and Hunter, a mysterious lady who guards bodies and hunts only the biggest game. London Below is a wonderfully realized shadow world, and the story plunges through it like an express passing local stations, with plenty of action and a satisfying conclusion. The story is reminiscent of Douglas Adams's The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, but Neil Gaiman's humor is much darker and his images sometimes truly horrific. Puns and allusions to everything from Paradise Lost to The Wonderful Wizard of Oz abound, but you can enjoy the book without getting all of them. Gaiman is definitely not just for graphic-novel fans anymore.

Reviews

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Review by S. Kay Elmore on 6 August 1998

Neverwhere is the story of Richard Mayhew, an average businessman from Scotland living in London. He has a good job, a beautiful fiancée with above average social connections, and he's on the brink of making his name in the world. On one pivotal night, he is thrust into a world of mystery and magic when he stops to help a wounded and bleeding homeless girl. His offer to help the strange girl named Door sends him deep into the world of London Below, a place untouched by time and more dangerous than he ever imagined. Richard becomes an unwelcome but tolerated traveling companion of the Lady Door and her entourage. They are searching for the killer of Door's family and must travel through London Below on a dangerous quest for the truth.
   
   So begins this fairy tale by Sandman author Neil Gaiman. It isn't often that modern writers can approach a fairy tale with such originality and fresh wit, but this is a different story. Neverwhere is a fairy tale for grown ups. It's a gothic novel in the vein of the early 80s London music scene rather than in the literary sense.
   
   The layers of grime and sewer filth that coat the characters can't mask their allegorical identities. They fade between the underground torches and rooftops of London, each one a piece out of place in time. They are like the characters from your nursery rhymes all grown up, and time has made them more sinister, more terrifying and brutal. In the classic children's fairy tale, the stories are more often than not about coming of age, passing the Baba Yaga's test, remembering to refuse the Elven wine, breaking the spell, freeing the princess, and waking up as an adult. This is a story of leaving the facade of the adult world of work and duty and dull repetition behind and becoming a child again.
   
   Because this is a fairy tale, it suffers from more than a little predictability. The bad guys will always be evil, the minute someone says "Trust me," you can't, and if you have a knack for names, you'll discover some heavy-handed foreshadowing during the introductions. But this by no means detracts from the story. It's a good page-turner; entertaining with more than a little wit and the darkly comic relief of a pair of truly nasty assassins who get testy if they aren't allowed to kill something every day or two.

Review by Christina Schulman on 15 March 1998

Neverwhere is the first solo novel by Neil Gaiman, the writer of the phenomenally popular comic book series The Sandman. It's reminiscent of the sort of nightmare where you don't know what's going on, or where you are, or why people are chasing you; but it's a particularly interesting and amusing nightmare.
   
   London stockbroker Richard Mayhew is on his way to dinner with his fiancee when he finds a ragged girl named Door bleeding to death on the sidewalk. Because he has a kind heart, Richard saves Door's life and helps her contacts her allies to take her home; in so doing, he is briefly exposed to the danger and magic hidden beneath London's streets. Because no good deed goes unpunished, Richard discovers the next day that he has been erased from his comfortable life. He is invisible to other people; his friends and fiancee have forgotten him; his landlord rents his apartment out from under him.
   
   Richard is left with little choice but to try to find his way back to Door. But London Below is dangerous at the best of times, and right now it could be lethal for Richard and Door as a pair of cartoonishly evil cutthroats pursue them through sewers, subways, and caverns measureless to man.
   
   Richard is a frustrating protagonist who spends most of the book tagging along with little purpose, boggling at the sights of London Below. However, Neverwhere is crawling with strange and memorable characters with their own undercurrents of power and grudges. The writing is frequently funny, and Gaiman has a gift for turning a bizarre metaphor. He writes with tremendous affection for London in all its grimy glory. The result is a cross between Rats & Gargoyles and Mary Poppins, and well worth reading.

Review by Alice Dechene on 15 December 1997

I started this book sipping coffee by the last rays of a summer evening, but ended it in a darkened room wondering what it means to truly experience life. Welcome to Neverwhere, a dark world of fealty, fiefdom, and the forever dispossessed: a world that, for all of its phantasm and phantoms, is entirely believable.
   
   Richard Mayhew is a productive -- if boring -- member of society. A securities analyst, he steadily plods along in the workaday world of jobs, schedules and relationships that really don't mean very much. It is the world of London Above, the surface structure of the here and now, unaware of the seething depths below.
   
   Into Richard's world steps, or rather stumbles, Door, an oddly gifted teenager fleeing assassins. When Richard stops before her crumpled, bleeding form in an act of true human compassion (thereby ungluing his precariously cemented engagement to the affluent and vapid Jessica), he begins his descent into the maze of lost time and lost places that is London Below. This single moment of human connection drops Richard through the cracks of the structured and scheduled into a terrifying abyss where archetypal incarnations of human nature roam: Beast and Hunter, Torturer and Victim, Savior and Destroyer.
   
   It's here that Richard's inadvertent journey of self discovery begins. Yes, this is a quest novel, but the object is not simply to find a key. It is, more importantly, to discover the true nature of self. Richard -- unassuming, claustrophobic, and afraid of heights-- must plumb his own dark crevices while navigating a labyrinthine microcosm that both crushes and expands the very notions of time and place. And all he really wants to do is get home.
   
   One of the most intriguing aspects of this novel is the development of London itself as a character. The lucid London Above is linked with yet totally oblivious to the roiling chaos of London Below. Only the truly dispossessed (rats, the homeless, the insane, the runaways) can negotiate the boundary between the two. For the Londoner above one false step, one break with the chain of rationally structured events, and the veil lifts, the invisible emerges and the dark chasm of Below yawns. Richard's goal is to clamber back out of the pit of irrationality, dream and danger -- if he can. As Richard explores himself, so too does he unearth every corner of the twin cities. (Mind you, I'm not actually saying ego/id, conscious/unconscious, but you get the picture.)
   
   In case the plot doesn't send you, the writing has moments of sheer brilliance. The bad guys, for example, are really bad, with a laugh that "sounded like a piece of blackboard being dragged over the nails of a wall of severed fingers." Gads, that makes one's skin crawl. Gaiman beautifully orchestrates scenes, fractionally unveiling psychological and physical terrors until the unwary reader totters as unsteadily as Richard on the brink of this terrifying world.
   
   You may have gathered that I really liked this novel. I'll admit I don't know how to classify it: sci-fi, fantasy or psychological thriller. In fact I don't know how to label this at all except to call it very, very good.


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