I tried to read Neverwhere, the first solo novel from Neil Gaiman, years ago but I had shortly beforehand watched the original TV version of the story, so I had a lot of trouble getting into the novel as it skewed so closely to what I’d so recently watched. Years passed and I’d read a number of Gaiman’s other novels – Stardust, American Gods, Anansi Boys, The Ocean at the End of the Lane, and more – while never returning to his first to really give it a fair shot. Now, in the wake of the success of Gaiman’s adaptation of his and Terry Pratchett’s Good Omens, I thought I’d return to a few favorites of Gaiman’s work while finally giving Neverwhere a real chance. Enough time has passed that I don’t really remember a whole lot of the TV show, so it was really the perfect time to give the book I read. I went to my local bookstore and found a new version of the book – Gaiman’s preferred text, now illustrated by Chris Riddell, one of Gaiman’s frequent collaborators. With this new copy of the book and a copy of the audiobook – narrated by Gaiman, himself – it was time to finally read Neverwhere. Now, having finished the book, I can honestly say that I’m really mad at myself for how long it took me to read this book because it’s really that damn good. (NOTE: This review will discuss elements of the story itself, Riddell’s illustrations, and Gaiman’s audiobook. Also, mild spoilers for a 23-year-old novel follow.)
Neverwhere (written by Neil Gaiman, illustrated by Chris Riddell)
Richard Mayhew is a young London businessman with a good heart whose life is changed forever when he stops to help a bleeding girl—an act of kindness that plunges him into a world he never dreamed existed. Slipping through the cracks of reality, Richard lands in Neverwhere—a London of shadows and darkness, monsters and saints, murderers and angels that exists entirely in a subterranean labyrinth. Neverwhere is home to Door, the mysterious girl Richard helped in the London Above. Here in Neverwhere, Door is a powerful noblewoman who has vowed to find the evil agent of her family’s slaughter and thwart the destruction of this strange underworld kingdom. If Richard is ever to return to his former life and home, he must join Lady Door’s quest to save her world—and may well die trying.
Published in 1997, Neil Gaiman’s first novel, Neverwhere, heralded the arrival of a major talent. Over the years, various versions have been produced around the world. In 2016, this gorgeously illustrated edition of the novel was released in the UK. It is now available here, and features strikingly atmospheric, painstakingly detailed black-and-white line art by Chris Riddell, one of Gaiman’s favorite artistic interpreters of his work.
Neverwhere is a pretty delightful novel. Intended to be a sort of Alice in Wonderland for adults, the novel has a very fairy tale feel as it explores life in London Below – a place that is quite literally what it sounds like: a world below London – where all those forgotten by society end up. Within the world of London Below are all sorts of people: beings who skew closer to what you might find in classical stories (vampire-esque creatures, witches, etc); odd, mostly-human characters who have a bunch of quirks; and anybody else who might fall into the category of people-forgotten-by-society-at-large (homeless people, runaway children, etc). The story, however, isn’t really about London Below or its inhabitants. Rather, it’s about how one regular human, Richard Mayhew, gets dragged into this world after helping a resident from London Below, the Lady Door, after she appears on a street in London Above, bloody and hurt. From there, it quickly turns into a mixture of adventure and murder mystery as Richard and Door work to figure out who is responsible for the deaths of Door’s family.
As previously mentioned, I watched the Neverwhere TV series years ago and, as a result, already knew the basic plot of the novel. Thankfully, with so many years having passed between my viewing of the TV series and my reading of the novel, I’d forgotten a pretty good chunk of the plot so there were still a number of surprises to be had within this reading. I knew the basics of the plot – who the villain is, what their motivation was, etc – but some of the specifics had been lost on me so it was an utter delight to rediscover them as I made my way through the story. Much of the fun of Neverwhere is not in its destination but in the journey it takes to that ending. Sure, you care who the ultimate bad guy is and why they are doing what they’re doing, but you care far more about Richard and Door and seeing them grow as people and characters. You relish all the time spent with side characters, such as the Marquis de Carabas and Hunter. You devour every bit of London Below, and all its inhabitants with a hungry fervor. Gaiman has managed to create a world that’s equal parts joyous to visit and scary to think about. Spending time in the world of Neverwhere is a genuinely joyous experience.
Of greater joy, though, was immersing myself in Gaiman’s prose. As anyone who’s ever read one of Gaiman’s books knows, the man has a gift for words. He can conjure up brilliant images of entirely made-up words with just a few sentences and he does this numerous times throughout Neverwhere, making London Below feel far more real than it ever could in a cheaply made TV show in the 1990s. Additionally, his prose is filled with little bits of humor – making this book a perfect starting point for those only familiar with Good Omens. His prose is great but so, too, is the way he paces this novel. While, like any novel of this genre, it takes a bit of time for things to really get moving as various characters and elements of the world have to be introduced and explained, once the ball gets rolling, it never really stops. Things move along just briskly enough that you never find yourself bored but not so fast that you find yourself wishing more time had been spent on something. The pacing is perfect and leaves plenty of room to explore the world of London Below, the plot of the story, and the characters themselves. Speaking of characters, Gaiman has always had a gift at crafting fully-realized characters – even for those characters who don’t play a particularly large part in the story – and that is 100% true here. Neverwhere is filled with so many different characters, most of whom only appear in one or two scenes and all of whom feel like fully realized people.
So, the story itself is good, but what about this particular edition? Chris Riddell illustrates this edition of the text – Gaiman’s preferred edition, which I can’t comment on as it’s the only version of the text I’ve ever read – and his illustrations are gorgeous. They’re black and white sketches, basically, but they really fit the mood and atmosphere of the story perfectly. There’s a brilliant mixture of realism and fantasy in the way that Riddell depicts every character he presents and his illustrations never feel childish enough to distract from the adult themes of the story nor do they feel serious enough to detract from the whimsical nature of the book. They’re perfectly suited for the story and a welcome addition – and there’s a whole bunch of them, too! As for Gaiman’s audiobook, it’s simply amazing. Gaiman, it turns out, also has a gift for reading his own novels aloud. If you only listened to this audiobook and had no idea Gaiman was also the writer, you’d think he was a professional voice actor/audiobook reader. He brings such emotion to the prose of the novel while imbuing each character with a distinct voice that feels perfectly suited to them. Listening to him read the audiobook only made the experience of reading this novel better. He’s as gifted a reader as he is a writer and I’m so happy he performs the audiobooks for the majority of his published work.
All in all, Neverwhere is a delightful novel. It’s a whimsical fantasy that’s equal parts light-hearted and dark. It’s a fully realized world that doesn’t dwell on the worldbuilding at the expense of the characters or plotline. It’s a plot that is driven by the needs of the characters and one that holds your interest throughout the entirety of its roughly 380-page length. It’s filled with characters who are magnificently well-developed and feel wholly real. It’s an utter shame it’s taken me so many years to read this book as it’s quickly become one of my favorites of Gaiman’s. While it doesn’t reach the same heights as something like American Gods or The Ocean at the End of the Lane, it’s also not trying to reach them. Gaiman’s said he set out to write a fantasy novel that would make adults feel the same way he felt as he read books like Alice in Wonderland as a child and I’d say he succeeded at that with flying colors. Neverwhere is an absolute must-read if you like fantasy novels, liked Good Omens (the book or the TV series), and/or are looking for a great way to get into Gaiman’s novels. It’s a wonderful read and you won’t regret it.
5 out of 5 wands.