Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman
Neverwhere and Neil Gaiman are probably in that area that's not well defined, where someone tells me you will love this book and you will love this author. It usually comes on the heals of having either loved some other book or hated some book and author; prompting a response from another, concerned, reader who thinks I should read this book. The problem with some of that is that it creates several ephemeral bubbles of expectation about things I know nothing about, that grow into unfounded hope. And with that I open the pages to disappointment.
But to begin I was thoroughly entertained by this novel and never felt that I should throw it against the wall or in the trash or burn it or give it any other of those many forms of quick death. When I think back-I can't honestly say what I was expecting. I somehow think it might be that I was expecting an insightful novel written in a manor that I could point to and say, 'If you want an example of how to write well and be well read then you should look at this and take notes.' Maybe I was reading too much into what people were saying.
Fortunately getting that out of my system only took reading the first few pages. I should qualify that I usually read around ten to twenty pages while deciding to continue to read.
Before I start, I'll give my usual caveat for those who are pernickety. In my e-copy I found some sentence structure within that cause me more than once to reread lines to determine what they really meant to say; and in some cases was left wondering why that spurious thought was eveb there. There are a few errors such as extra words and missing words that crop up. There are even a few places where something jars, but seem to be out of what appears to be perfect planning. In one scene a character is running off to get food and another character says 'Curry please'. Where one could easily mistake that they might have meant 'Hurry please' but when the other character does get things with curry then the whole thing explains itself.
The story begins with our protagonist Richard Mayhew who is preparing to leave his small Scottish town and enter the big city of London. He's getting a proper sendoff from his friends and this is the moment we begin to see that Richard might be feeling a bit of disillusion with the direction of his life. But we will find that one of Richards faults is that he doesn't see the disillusion and so he really can't do anything about it. Oddly Richard seems to be similar in many ways to Quentin in "Lev Grossman's The Magician"-except for the obvious fact that Quentin is aware of his dissatisfaction. On this night Richard meets an elderly lady and offers her his umbrella to protect her against the elements-which tells us a bit about him- but before the chivalry she will offer to read his palm, where she cautions him that he has a long road ahead and he should watch out for doors.
Richard takes it all light-heartedly while agreeing to watch out for doors. As a reader I was certain doors would mean something else and most certainly he'd not recognize it before it hit him in the face or the backside.
Fast forward to London; a young lady is being pursued by thugs. Mr. Croup and Mr. Vandemar and Mr. Ross are in hot pursuit; but the first two are using Mr. Ross as a sort of advanced scout. This proves prudent since the young lady has a talent that proves quite deadly. Their plan is to get her to use the talent and then overtake her while she is recharging her magic.
Richard is leading a normal life -he has a girl friend- a great job with many friends- plenty of challenges at work and is definitely showing signs that there are not enough hours in a day- suffice it to say he thinks he's happy. His girlfriend Jessica is controlling and manipulating and quite organized and focused- who could ask for anything more. Into this relationship falls the seriously injured young woman. We get to really see what Jessica is all about when she tries to ignore the bleeding and pleading person she assumes is homeless. Richard lets his better nature win at the risk of losing Jessica, although reason seems to go south as he agrees with the wishes of the severely injured woman and takes her home instead of to the hospital. His home.
The girl whose name is Doreen, is of course the mysterious Door since her nickname is Door. There are more than the obvious reasons for that nickname. By taking her in Richard puts himself at risk in more ways than one and soon finds this out when Mr. Croup and Mr Vandemar show up at his door. While they push their way into the apartment they all discover that Doreen has somehow vanished from the apartment- much to Richards relief. As soon as they leave she shows up and claims to have always been there; and that begins the stranger part of our fantasy. Now we enter a world that matches many of Disney's classic cartoons where people talk to animals and it even rivals Lewis Carrol's Alice in Wonderland as Richard finds himself sucked down the rabbit hole into an alternate underground of London.
This begins a series of what look like inconsistencies within the magic of the story that seem to exist solely because of an effort to hide other surprises that the author has in mind for the reader.
Richard loses his existence in the real-world because he saw and got involved with Door. He becomes a non-person who no one in the real world can see. But now we have the question of why he and Jessica could see Door to begin with. This gets answered, but there is such a lag between the question and the answer that as a reader it was annoying because many more questions started to pile up for the answering.
This comes about not so much from an actual need to withhold the information as much as it is that the author has something else that might be deduced too early if he makes the reveal too early, which results in a reader, like myself, having difficulty with the suspension of disbelief when internally the magic has some problems. I have seen this same phenomenon in other books where the author tries so hard not to say one thing that it creates a withholding of information that's important to the scene and in many cases creates a false anticipation of events that never occur; and then a letdown to the reader.
There are many other example of this same style choice that become very annoying. One such occurs when a character appears to betray everyone, because we don't have enough information. Then when we get more information the readers has to say, well then why did he do it that way; that was stupid. And then even later when we have the rest revealed and we now know why he acted so stupid; we have reached a point where without a proper understanding in the cascade of revaluation, the whole thing looks like Deus ex Machina, which might explain why someone complained that there were a series of Deus ex Machina that occur throughout the novel.
The novel as a whole contains so many threads that seem to be derived from a long list of other works that include The wizard of OZ by Frank L. Baum; Princes Bride by William Goldman; The Night Life of the Gods by Thorne Smith; Alice in Wonderland Lewis Carroll and the Narnia series by CS Lewis, and there is hardly room for character development. The most striking character for me is marquis de Carabas. Though Richard has some bit of depth and is working on the issue of understanding his own dissatisfaction with his life he comes off as being easily directed rather than driven- which could be another flaw, but that one is never properly addressed. Hunter could have been a favorite except she suffered from that same need to keep things secret until we surprise the reader. This unfortunately makes hunter come off as and unknown variable with absolutely no depth.
It seemed like the characters had to be molded to fit the various borrowed themes and were restricted from any chance to reveal their own depth of character. Even the pivotal scenes where Richard obtains an object they need and later when he becomes a sort of warrior hero; these scenes lose their power because in both cases we don't know Richard enough to say that it went outside his character; although it looks like it's way outside his character.
Ultimately when all is finished all the plot lines and themes resolve out well finally and the magic seems to mostly follow it's internal rules. The story itself if a really good type of fable. It's quite an enjoyable read though it takes a bit of perseverance to wait for some of the explanation that help the logic. Such questionable logic as why would someone who has the power to open anything needs a key, let alone have to participate in a quest for the key. (This question is actually answered but it's there with a whole bunch of similar questions the reader has to wait some time before they are answered.)
This is really a good read for any Fantasy fans and those who like a light read with some built in colloquial humor based on pop references.
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