One of the things I love about Neil Gaiman’s work is that you can read them as modern day fairy tales. They have something of the Grimm brothers about them. Things aren’t quite real, which magic and mysterious creatures. The world of the book is governed by unexplained rules, and the characters are playing for high stakes. And there’s a better than average chance more than one character will die. It continually amazes me how Gaiman can bring elements of folklore and history to play in a modern setting. In Neverwhere, the protagonists are on a quest to avenge a family and save London Below, the dark flipside of the everyday London. Along the way, they have to fight the Beast of London, face the Black Friar’s ordeals and the earl of Earl’s Court. There are characters like Old Bailey and the marquis de Carabas. I love books where I spend almost as much time on Wikipedia looking things up as I do reading the book.
The book begins with Richard Mayhew, an ordinary bloke with a fiancee who is trying to mold him into a titan of industry. Richard just muddles along with his life until a bleeding girl drops into his path one day. Since he possesses some hidden heroic qualities, Richard takes her home and patches her up. His assistance, however, causes him to drop out of his ordinary life and become a part of London Below. Made up of forgotten things and people and old time, London Below is much more interesting than its counterpart and a lot more dangerous. The girl he helped, Door, turns out to be the center of a big conspiracy. Her family has been killed and the assassins are after her now. The only people she can trust are Richard (who is clueless about London Below) and the so-called marquis de Carabas (who seems even more dodgy than the rest of the underside’s denizens).
What really makes this book for me, other than the bits of folklore and history, are the villains: Mr. Croup and Mr. Vandemar. They’re both terrifyingly violent and they seem to be around every corner. Mr. Croup is the voice of the pair, and his archaic and erudite way of speaking make him even more frightening. Mr. Vandemar, the muscle, is a barely controlled psychopath who hurts anything that he can in the most painful way possible. Even though they’re a pretty fantastical pair, they make the danger Richard and Door and their group face seem more real.
I can’t say much more about this book without giving away the conspiracy. Like The Night Circus (by Erin Morgenstern), the setting really makes this book. But unlike that book, the characters stand up to the setting. They grow and change and we really get to learn who these characters are. The transformation in Richard is particularly spectacular. He grows from a regular Joe into a fully fledged hero.
Neverwhere is one of the reasons I wish Gaiman publishes more novels. I love this book and American Gods and Good Omens and the rest. He’s truly original.