I was fully prepared to like Neil Gaiman. His 2013 lecture to the Reading Agency inspired a kindred affection in me, with a perspective that warmly recaptures my own experience with reading. And what sci-fi geek didn’t smile to see him introduce Ursula LeGuin before her own excellent speech at the National Book Awards in November? But it wasn’t until a few weeks ago—when my dad lent me a paperback copy of Neverwhere he’d scored from the library sale table for fifty cents and said “this is a cute story, I think you’d like it”–that I finally read Mr. Gaiman’s fiction. And he proved to be just as imaginative and charming as I’d expected.
Neverwhere, a picaresque urban fantasy romp, introduces us to a very ordinary young Scotsman named Richard Mayhew. When he helps a mysterious girl he finds injured on the sidewalk, he falls out of contemporary London and into London Below, a parallel underground world where all the city’s centuries seem to converge in one eclectic pastiche. Magic and history collide at every turn: earls hold court in subway cars; vagrants speak the language of rats; beautiful vampiric creatures evoke Victorian streetwalkers. Richard’s new friend Door possesses a magical gift for opening things; she’s also on the run from supernatural assassins who killed her family. With support from a diverse company of characters, the pair embarks on a quest to uncover Door’s family secrets and return Richard to his own world.
Although it never achieves great character development or plot complexity, Neverwhere functions well as a modern fairytale. It echoes Alice in Wonderland and The Wizard of Oz in its own unique landscape. Gaiman’s writing style, like his protagonist, is affable and unpretentious. He plays with reality like a glassblower working molten glass, twisting it into bright parody of itself. This aspect transforms the simple, archetype-driven story an immersive experience. Its color and liveliness also make for good winter reading, so if you’re weary of cold drab nights, take a cue from book’s Black Friars and brew a “lovely cup of tea”, then enjoy a foray to London Below!