Have you ever walked through the teeming multitudes of a city street, unseen, unremarked, and unacknowledged? Have you ever walked by a panhandler, watched the crowd part and flow around him, and yet see none of the members of this steady flow of humanity acknowledge or even seem to observe him? What if you became as unmarked as this panhandler, then slipped deeper and deeper into this anonymity until not even your closest friends could recognize your features? What would happen to people who became invisible to the rest of the world?
Richard is an ordinary man with an ordinary past and an ordinary life, a man who takes comfort in the mundane and is content to be ordered about by his domineering fiancée. But when a terrified and injured girl stumbles into his path, Richard makes what might be his first independent decision, his first resistance against the ordinary flow of his life: he makes the choice to rescue and protect this unknown girl. Immediately, his reality begins to shatter, and in the cracks between the mundanity of his past life, he begins to discover the peculiar world of London Below. Catapulted into strangeness, Richard begins a quest into the magical and often grotesque environs of London Below to find the girl who shattered his peace and to regain his old life.
Neverwhere is an exploration of the fantastic, an adventure, an escape into the creative and bizarre and dangerous, and, perhaps above all, the story of a man discovering himself.
I loved this book: I loved its lyrical writing,its eccentric characters, its themes, its explorations of mythic archetypes, its symmetries, and even the threads of the plot left untied and unfinished. To enjoy this book, however, I think you need to be comfortable with what Christopher Moore calls a "beta male" protagonist. Richard begins the novel as generally ineffective, hapless, accommodating, and passive, and although his adventures transform him, he does not go through a spandex-wearing-cool-car-driving-Clark-Kent-style metamorphosis. Instead, after he makes his first fateful decision, he is pushed and prodded through most of the events of the novel without even having choices to make. One of the aspects of the novel that I loved was the symmetry: Richard's two major decisions come at the beginning and the end, and the fact that he goes back to his mundane reality before choosing London Below means that his second decision, unlike his first, is an informed one.] Personally, I tend to find beta-male characters endearing, and although I refuse to analyse what that indicates about my personality, this meant that I was not frustrated by the rather hapless hero. I had some amount of difficulty relating to the main female protagonist, but I found many of the other characters to be vivid, complex, and fascinating. I loved the most vocal villains, Mr. Croup and Mr. Vandemar. There is a reason why this variety of henchman duo has become a common motif in movies and books. They make a perfect pair: Mr. Croup is short, thickset, vivacious, unctuous, and locquacious, while Mr. Vandemar is tall, hulking, stoic, silent, fond of understatement, and entirely unable to comprehend humorous wordplay. Both are violent psychopaths, and unlike Pratchett's Mr. Pin and Mr. Tulip, their violent excesses are often so gruesome that, while they remain humorous, they are also frightening and horrifying. I also thought that the Marquis de Carabas was fascinating: he embodies most of the characteristics of the Trickster archetype, yet had unexpected depths. The characters felt so real that I was genuinely shocked by some of the reveals. I suspected Islington--although I thought the wine was some sort of potion and I didn't expect the Atlantis aspect. However, I was extremely surprised by de Carabas's loyalty, especially after he turned up in Croup and Vandemar's lair.
I also thought that London Below was enthralling. It captured the atmosphere and identity of London, yet also caught the best characteristics of the old fairy tales: that haunting familiarity mixed with absolute strangeness that we find only in dreams. London Below also uses one of the aspects of the traditional faery world that I love best: the currency of favours and debt. In London Below, favours are bartered and sold, and the bonds that they create are absolute and insoluble. Like the old fey, the literal words used are of utmost importance: it is easy to trick and lie by omission and yet speak the absolute truth. The symmetry of the world and plot were intensely satisfying, as were the details of the world, but I think I loved the aspects left unknown and unexplored even more. The concept of the night as a mysterious entity in its own right, the unknown fate of some of the characters (namely, Hunter and Anesthesia)], lent a certain reality and a bitter-sweet tinge to the flow of the story.
Overall, not only did I love almost every aspect of Neverwhere, but it has given me a new-found appreciation for Gaiman's imagination and skill as a writer. Definitely a worthwhile read for anyone interested in the origins of Urban Fantasy.