Book Review: Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman

Title: Neverwhere
Author: Neil Gaiman
Genre: Urban fantasy
Format: Various, available from Amazon
Date Read: 14/01/2014 – 29/01/2014
Rating: ★★★
neverwhere-coverSigh… I have this real problem with Neil Gaiman… every time I read the back of one of his books, or someone sums them up for me, they sound really, really awesome. But then I try reading them, and I just can’t click with the writing style. So up until now, The Graveyard Book was the only one of his that I had read all the way through to the end. I haven’t even read Coraline, and it’s pretty short. I thought I should read Neverwhere now, though, since it’s full of London Underground puns, which I might actually understand while the London Underground is still reasonably fresh in my head.
Back six months or so ago when Peter Capaldi was announced as Matt Smith’s replacement on Doctor Who, I ordered the BBC mini-series of Neverwhere, because Mr Capaldi played the role of the Angel Islington in it (cue: “The Angel has the phone box” references). It was very standard 1990s BBC fantasy fare, enjoyable, but the production values weren’t great and I couldn’t help thinking that the book was probably better. Sadly, it wasn’t, really, and my main complaint is the same as every second reviewer’s:
Richard Mayhew is a boring hero and the book would have been so much more interesting if the Marquis de Carabas were the main character.
To give you a bit of background, Richard is a normal business man whose life is changed forever when he helps a wounded young woman on the street instead of going to dinner with his fiancée and her boss. Suddenly no one can see him except for those from the world of the young woman he helped. That world is London Below, a world for those who have slipped through the cracks of the real world. It is a bizarre maze of abandoned train platforms, populated by even stranger people. Richard ends up travelling with Door (the woman he helped), Hunter, her bodyguard and the aforementioned Marquis de Carabas, a shady figure who apparently saved Door’s father’s life once and owes her a debt. Richard wants to get home, Door wants to find out who killed her family, Hunter wants to slay the London Beast and no one really knows what the Marquis wants, other than for all debts to be back in his favour.
The main problem with Neverwhere is that it never really feels like the stakes are particularly high. While the world is interesting enough to keep you reading, and I did enjoy understanding the puns on Tube station names like “Earl’s Court” and feeling like I was in the know because I was able to agree with Richard on things like “But Earl’s Court isn’t on the Central Line”, I didn’t exactly wait with baited breath to see how Richard escaped from the “Ordeal of the Key” (which is rather talked up) or what he would do after having his life-force temporarily sucked out of him by a sort of vampire-ice-lady-person. Even when I got to the climax and the true villain of the piece was revealed, my jaw didn’t drop. I didn’t have one of those moments where I had to stop reading for a moment and recover. One might argue that I had already seen the miniseries and perhaps this was why nothing surprised me, but I honestly think I wouldn’t have read all the way to the end had I not known where it was going. (I know, that’s a bit weird, but sometimes I do that; I have been known to read the last pages of books first)
There was also the issue of the author falling into really cliche descriptions of people: Door had an elven face with opal eyes, and all the non-white characters had their skin tones compared to food. I swear, if Hunter was described as “caramel” one more time…
To sum up, I know this is one of Neil Gaiman’s earlier works, so I’m willing to cut some slack, but it does sort of leave me wondering what all the fuss is about…

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