Story Saturday: Neverwhere (Again)

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I’m a slow reader. Pretty busy. So I’m only about 76% of the way through Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman. I’m enjoying it too much to rush through it just for the sake of a blog post.

Last week I said:

In Neverwhere, Neil Gaiman takes the tropes of fairy tales and reinvents them for a story about class conflict in modern London.

Let’s look at some of those fantasy tropes and see how Gaiman uses them in his own unique way. But that will require a…

Spoiler Alert!

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Good vs. Evil

The ultimate fantasy trope, one which some find outdated and clichéd, is Good vs. Evil. The modern fashion is for things to be morally gray, with no one purely good or purely evil.

Well, Gaiman can be as modern as any author; but in this book, he actually hews quite closely to the trope. There is Good: Door is good. Her late father Portico was good, an idealist who aspired to unite London Below for the betterment of all. Richard Mayhew thinks all he wants is to survive and get home; but it’s his innate goodness that draws him into the story in the first place. Unlike the rest of London Above, when he sees someone in trouble, he cannot look away. He has to help Door. And thus he becomes part of London Below.

And there is Evil. Mr. Croup and Mr. Vandemar are walking avatars of Evil. The Velvets are seductive Evil. Others are vain, selfish, spiteful, hateful. But worst, perhaps, is the banal evil of London above: the ability for Londoners to look right past the suffering of London Below.

The most modern, morally gray character is also the most popular with many readers: the marquis de Carabas. He would slice your throat… if there were something in it for him. He would save your life… but only if he owed you something (or perhaps because it would put you in his debt). He trades in favors, and he always fulfills his obligations. And he expects you to do so as well.

Hero

The novel is many things: an allegory, a quest, an engaging yarn… But in the main, I think it is the story of Richard Mayhew discovering the hero inside him. He starts as a slightly out-of-place Scotsman in London. In the end, he is one of the most recognized heroes of London Below. And he is a hero not because of strength or bravery, but because of a deeper decency: whenever he faces a choice, he ultimately does the right thing, even if it frightens him.

Dark Lord

All right, I’ll say it again: SPOILER ALERT! I MEAN IT! The Angel Islington is a classic Dark Lord, though more in the style of Saruman than Sauron. He made a horrible mistake, and he thinks he sees a way to make the world right – no matter who he has to lie to, manipulate, or kill to get there. He is literally a Fallen Angel, a classic Dark Lord type.

Quest

The entire story is, in essence, a quest. Or perhaps more accurately, a Quest Chain, where each small Quest raises a new question, leading to a new Quest. At first, Richard seeks the Floating Market and Door, while Door and the marquis seek a bodyguard. Then the group seek the Angel Islington to tell Door who killed her family. Then Islington sends them to get a key. Once they get the key, they have a new quest to find Down Street, the new path to Islington. In this summary, the plot sounds mechanical, like levels in a video game. But Gaiman hides the mechanics behind rich characters and a thoroughly imaginative world.

Magic

Oh, there’s magic. It’s not flashy like Harry Potter. It’s subtle like Gandalf, maybe moreso. But Islington scries via a pool. The Nightsbridge steals travelers away. The Earls Court resides in a subway train that cannot possibly hold it. And is it merely indifference that makes London Below invisible to London Above, or is it a spell?

Oh, and… SPOILER ALERT! The marquis de Carabas comes back from the dead.

Oh, there’s magic in London Below. It’s just subtle and inconsistent, and you don’t want to rely on it too much.

Medievalism

There’s a touch of Medievalism in the book. The fashions range from gothic punk to ancient, with medieval represented. And the social structure is baronies and fiefdoms. But the Medievalism is more of a flavor than a dominant theme.

Ancient World

Somewhere ancient Roman Legionnaires still roam Below. Croup and Vandemar claim to have caused the fall of Troy. Islington caused the drowning of Atlantis. London Below is as old as London itself, and some of the denizens are older.

Races

This trope, perhaps, is nowhere to be found in the book. Croup and Vandemar are surely not human, though in human guise. Islington is literally an angel. And the Velvets seem human, but are closer in nature to vampires.

But aside from those, every character you meet is seemingly human. Door’s face is sometimes described as “elfin”, but it’s never explicitly said that she’s an elf (or that there are elves). So I think it’s safe to say that this book is populated primarily by people.

Oh, and rats. Be nice to the rats. You never know when you may need a favor from a rat.

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