Sunday 25 September 2022

Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman (HarperCollins) | Review by Douglas J. Ogurek

Strange passageways and treacherous crossings: seminal work of urban fantasy throws an ordinary life into tumult, gives “mind the gap” a new meaning 

Neverwhere, Neil Gaiman’s novelisation of the 1996 miniseries of the same name (also written by him and others), tells the story of Richard Mayhew, an ordinary fellow with a controlling girlfriend. When Mayhew decides to help a young woman named Door evade some pursuers, he gets thrust into London Below, a world of secret passages, talking rats, strange markets, light-emitting wine, and life and death challenges. Examples of the latter range from a wooden plank a thousand feet above rocky ground to an underground river that you do not want to fall into. London Below is a place where climbing out of a sewer will put you on the side of a building or walking through a home’s entry will lead you to a street. 

To navigate this strange world, unlikely hero Mayhew aligns himself with Door, so named for her ability to unlock any kind of door. They join forces with the eccentric Marquis de Carabas and an incredibly skilled female fighter called Hunter. During their quest to find an angel, the quartet will encounter a colourful cast of characters and challenges aplenty… all while dodging assassins Croup and Vandemar. These sadists, who’ve made their home in the cellar of a Victorian hospital, stand out as some of the more eccentric villains in contemporary fantasy. Croup, the brains of the operation, likes to destroy beautiful things, whether they be an ancient piece of art or a person. His righthand man Vandemar, a goon to the highest degree, has a fondness for breaking bones and eating live animals. 

Gaiman’s London Below has some of the elements of the London we know, but it also diverges in many ways. The market that the heroes visit, for instance, resembles the iconic Harrods, but it’s a “bizarre bazaar” with people selling all kinds of weird products. 

One of the more enchanting characters is the Earl of Earl’s Court. He and his court operate on a train car that appears dark from the outside but is full of life within. The Earl’s elderly guards hit up vending machines for candy bars and Cokes that they drink from expensive chalices. 

Gaiman deserves praise not just for his world-building skills, but also for his ability to create three-dimensional characters – especially his underdog protagonist – that change when confronted with extreme challenges. One of the book’s tensest scenes involves the Black Friars’ three tests: one physical challenge, one riddle and one ordeal. Among the themes that emerge as the Neverwhere characters undergo their tribulations within this strange domain are revenge, betrayal, sacrifice and especially self-respect.—Douglas J. Ogurek****

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