Story Saturday: Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman

In Neverwhere, Neil Gaiman takes the tropes of fairy tales and reinvents them for a story about class conflict in modern London. Yeah, I know, that sounds dreary and preachy, but it’s not. It’s Gaiman-y, and that means magical. I’m rereading it because it reminds me of a story in my Idea Pile, and I want to remember how this sort of story is done right. I gave it 5 stars out of 5 on my first read. This time I’m trying to figure out how to give it 6 out of 5, since I’m catching all of the foreshadowing that I missed the first time.

Summary: It’s Gaiman, in my opinion the finest fantasist we have today. And it’s my favorite of his works. Even though it’s not as cosmic, I like it better than The Sandman, and that’s saying a lot! If you’re a Gaiman fan and you haven’t read this yet, what are you waiting for? And if you’re new to Gaiman, this is a great start.

This story originated as a BBC TV series and has also been adapted as a graphic novel.

Now for the…

Spoiler Alert!

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Unbeknownst to most, there are two Londons: London Above, the one we all know; and London Below, a community living mostly under the streets of London Above, but also on the roofs, in back alleys, and anywhere else that the people of London Above choose not to go. And choose is the operative word: London Below and its residents are all around them, but the people Above choose not to see them. Look right through them, even. If forced to notice someone from Below, they forget as soon as possible.

But when the Lady Door, a noble from a powerful London Below family, lies injured on a London street, Richard Mayhew – over the objections of his fiancée Jessica – refuses to look away. He insists on helping Door. He is awakened to the existence of London Below. And once he is, he is drawn in. His eyes are opened, and he can never go back to what he once was. He is now of London Below, and Jessica and everyone he knows have forgotten him.

Yes, it’s an obvious allegory for a modern city divided between the powerful and the homeless, the dispossessed. As I’ve described it here, it sounds like a heavy-handed, clumsy allegory. But that’s because I’m not Gaiman. Neil Gaiman does not do clumsy! (Plus he has two to three chapters to introduce what I summarized in two paragraphs.) As Richard and Door and their companions hunt the killers of Door’s family, the allegory fades into the background behind a classic fantasy quest told in a most unusual setting and populated with unusual characters, including:

  • The marquis de Carabas, a wiley character with only one principle: trading favors. He is neither a good man nor a bad; but if he owes you, he’s a good man to have on your side. And if you owe him, pay up, or you’ll pay…
  • Hunter, a woman obsessed with hunting the most dangerous legendary creatures of the modern world.
  • Croup and Vandemar, the immortal, evil assassins hired to kill Door’s family. But who hired them? That’s the real quest.

There are a lot more, of course, but these are the primary characters. Each is richly fleshed out, realistic and exotic. The story is told mostly from Richard’s POV, as the reader’s proxy in this strange world, but occasionally follows the other characters on side journeys.

And the last character is London itself, Above and Below. Gaiman contrasts the two worlds metaphorically and brilliantly. Place names that have no meaning in London Above are revealed to have rich, magical histories in London Below.

I’m enjoying this book more in my reread. I highly recommend it!

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