Friday, April 6, 2012

Book Review: Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman

I had purchased Neverwhere since it was on discount and because I keep hearing good things about Neil Gaiman. I have read, and enjoyed, American Gods, so I figured it worth trying another of his books. It didn't hurt that it was on sale for just $2.99. I always keep an eye for these sort of specials.

Initial Impression:
A lot of people have compared Un Lun Dun by China Mieville with Neverwhere. Indeed there are some similarities: the main characters 'falls' into a second London which exists in secret from London itself. That is where the similarity ends, however. In practice, I would compare Neverwhere more with Kraken (also by Mieville). In both cases, the hidden London is darker and you have dangerous and violent characters around (see Goss and Subby vs Croup and Vandemar).

It took me a while to really get into the story. It moves at a nice pace, but the characters and plot seemed dull until I was about halfway through. Then the story really picked up, got the hang of his style, and enjoyed the book. It didn't feel as magical as I had expected, but that is OK.

The story took a while to get going, but once it did it was good. There are several interesting and very satisfying twists to the story that make it very enjoyable. The reveal on "who the bad guy is" was very cool and better than Un Lun Dun's.

Despite the twists, however, the story is fairly direct as a quest-style narrative. It's a very typical storyline pattern that I've come to see several times and is another way it sounds so similar to Mieville's work. We know that the characters must complete task 'A' and once they do, they get task 'B' and so forth. Of course, the fun is in the details. On average (and especially at the start), these details are far more interesting in Mieville's work (particularly since he shatters our expectations); however, things do get very cool near the end.

There are practically two simultaneous plot lines, though both are tied together. The one we start with is Richard's, an ordinary fellow who circumstances unfortunately led him to London Below. He just wants to get his life back and is completely unprepared for the terrors and trials of the world beneath London. The second plot line, and the one that drives the book, in my opinion, is Door's. The girl Door has the ability to open/unlock/lock/create doors of any kind, and someone is trying to kill her. She is running for her life while at the same time trying to find answers and exact revenge on the death of her family.

It takes a long time for us to like the main character, Richard. He is such an ordinary person that we can identify with him, but we kinda wish he was far more heroic. He does grow through the story and he does have his moments, but he is also at times so terribly afraid and normal that we just want to scream at him. At the end, though, I was quite happy with his development and proud of his final choice.

The other characters are more mysterious and interesting. You can't tell who is good and bad most of the time, and there are some interesting reveals through the story. Like most of the setting, you can't quite tell how magical the characters are. Some can clearly do things (like Door) that others can't, but some of the rest seem pretty ordinary except that they live in London Below.

I found this neat depiction of one of the main characters, the Marquis de Carabas, online:
The Marquis de Carabas as drawn by Jo-yumegari
I have to say that drawing perfectly captures the feel of the character and, more importantly, the book itself: dark, ragged, threatening, on the edge of madness, his outstretched hand offering a world you're not quite sure you want.

Setting / World Building:
Setting-wise, I was expecting more from this book than I got. London Below is mostly sewers, the Underground, a few caves, and other things that are literally below ground. While there are some fantastical elements there, they are far less prevalent than in, for example, UnLondon (of Un Lun Dun). I haven't been to London, so I can't tell if Gaiman is making up street names or districts, but it all sounds so real that it's almost boring. To be fair: it's a clever setting, I just wish it were as magical as others I've seen. I suppose that's his thing though, given my experience with American Gods. The world is gritty, filthy, and ragged, but subtly magical. It looks like he has a knack for turning the fantastical into the real, which is no easy task.

The Floating Market was one of my favorite 'places' in the book. It is a gathering of people selling (more like exchanging) goods with a truce to prevent violence. The location changes every time and somehow people know where it will be. If you don't, just ask, which is how everyone finds out. If you think about it hard (as Richard does) you'll realize there is a flaw in that reasoning: if everyone finds out by asking where it will be, who knew in the first place?
In the Floating Market you can get everything you need, from food, to bodyguards, to dead bodies, and even:
“Rubbish!” screamed a fat, elderly woman, in Richard’s ear, as he passed her malodorous stall. “Junk!” she continued. “Garbage! Trash! Offal! Debris! Come and get it! Nothing whole or undamaged! Crap, tripe, and useless piles of shit. You know you want it.” - from Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman

Final Thoughts:
Despite the slow start and the slightly derivative feel throughout the novel, I enjoyed the book. It's a bit hard to point out what is the best/worst in this book or to tell exactly why I liked it. Neil Gaiman is just a pretty good author.

However, I'm afraid that if I had to choose between Neverwhere and Un Lun Dun, I would choose the latter. Un Lun Dun has a more creative story line given its genre-defying antics and the world feels richer, lighter, and more unique. I can see why some people compare the two, though, and I'm sure that if you like one you may also like the other.

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