Neverwhere: Wonderfully fantastical setting

Readers’ average rating:

Reposting to include Stuart’s new review.

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsfantasy book reviews Neil Gaiman NeverwhereNeverwhere by Neil Gaiman

Richard Mayhew has a life that most men would envy: He’s got a good job, a nice apartment in London, and he’s about to be married to a beautiful wealthy woman. But when he stops to help a girl (named Door) in the street, Richard soon finds that he’s slipped through the cracks into Neverwhere: a magical and frightening underground London that people like Richard never knew existed. How could he have known that his Random Act of Kindness would ruin everything? And, most importantly, how can he get his old life back?

Neil Gaiman rarely fails to amuse me with his creative concepts, quirky humor, and over-the-top villains, and Neverwhere (1997), the novelization of his BBC television program of the same name, has all that. What it doesn’t have is a tight and gripping plot or exciting and well-developed heroes. Richard is an average guy who’s mostly along for the ride and Door and her monster-hunter bodyguard (named Hunter) aren’t too stimulating either. The best characters are the caricatured villains, Mr. Croup and Mr. Vandemar, ancient assassins who enjoy killing famous world leaders and biting the heads off kittens. This is totally and purposely overdone, and humorous because of it.

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsWhat makes Neverwhere worth reading is, without doubt, its wonderfully fantastical setting: an alternate London Underground. After visiting Neverwhere, you’ll never look at a London Tube Station map the same way again. Ever wonder how Earl’s Court Station got its name? Well, obviously, because a medieval lord holds court there. Who are the Blackfriars? And what about Islington at Angel Station? You’ll meet them all and discover what they’re up to in Neverwhere. I am not familiar with Underground London, but Neil Gaiman made me want to don a headlamp and begin exploring its closed off tunnels and tracks (“Mind the Gap!”). He could have done more with this setting, so I hope that someday he’ll write another novel in this world (a sequel has been rumored for years).

The other aspect of Neverwhere that I think is really well done is Richard’s confusion about what is real. Is he really in another world below London, or is he just going mad? It’s estimated that ⅓ to ½ of the homeless are schizophrenic and Gaiman captured their delusional behaviors so well, explaining them in the context of Neverwhere.

“Neil Himself” narrated the audio version I listened to. He’s a good reader and his voice is always pleasant, but I think it’s a little too light and upbeat for some of the darker scenes in Neverwhere. Still, it’s nice to hear the author’s interpretation of his own work.

~Kat Hooper


fantasy book reviews Neil Gaiman NeverwhereWith 268,000+ ratings and 13,700+ reviews on Goodreads, mostly positive, Neverwhere hardly needs my approval or otherwise. I frequently try to review books that are lesser known and deserve more attention, but Neil Gaiman and his books have a huge following, and I have really enjoyed his SANDMAN comic series, as well as his books The Graveyard Book, Stardust, and The Ocean at the End of the Lane. Several of his books have become movies or TV series, so by any measure he is hugely successful. So it was with great surprise that I listened to Neverwhere and kept thinking to myself — I don’t really care about these characters or their story.

The setting of London Below is great, full of atmosphere and menace, and it was particularly well-timed for me since I just visited London this summer for the first time in 25 years, so the mentions of Westminster, Blackfriars, St. Pancras, Tower Bridge, Leicester Square, St. Pauls, Earl’s Court, Knight’s Bridge and all the famous landmarks of the city were still fresh in my memory. I loved the atmosphere, architecture, people, and neighborhoods of the city, it was an exhilarating experience. So I was ready to be drawn into his magical underworld.

And yet despite Gaiman’s masterful reading of his own book, his colorful and smooth writing style, and his whimsical and droll humor, I just didn’t like the characters and found the plot of Neverwhere even less interesting. It felt aimless and I didn’t really care what happened next. The only characters worth mentioning were the malicious but hapless assassins Mr. Croup and Mr. Vandemar, who were hilariously over-the-top. But the main character, Richard Mayhew, was just such a milquetoast office-working British everyman that I didn’t like him or his wealthy and superficial fiancee from the start. The young woman Door’s plight also didn’t move me for some reason. I must be hard-hearted indeed.

In addition, I just didn’t buy into the world of London Below, with its monsters, villains, scoundrels, rat-speakers, angels, demons, beasts, and vagabonds who have fallen through the cracks of normal society. Even given the internal logic of fantasy worlds, I didn’t see a barter economy with various weird creatures, supernatural beings, and humans holding together. The angel Islington was particularly hard to accept, especially his motivations. All the elements of a great story are there, but it just didn’t gel for me. I still look forward to the audiobooks of American Gods, Anansi Boys, and Gaiman’s collaboration Good Omens with Terry Pratchett, but for me this was not one of his best works.

~Stuart Starosta

Neverwhere — (1997) Publisher: Published in 1997, Neil Gaiman’s darkly hypnotic first novel, Neverwhere, heralded the arrival of a major talent and became a touchstone of urban fantasy. Over the years, a number of versions were produced both in the U.S. and the U.K. Now Gaiman’s preferred edition of his classic novel reconciles these works and reinstates a number of scenes cut from the original published books. Neverwhere is the story of Richard Mayhew, a young London businessman with a good heart and an ordinary life, which is changed forever when he discovers a girl bleeding on the sidewalk. He stops to help her—an act of kindness that plunges him into a world he never dreamed existed. Slipping through the cracks of reality, Richard lands in the Neverwhere—a London of shadows and darkness, monsters and saints, murderers and angels that exists entirely in a subterranean labyrinth. The Neverwhere is home to Door, the mysterious girl Richard helped in the London Above. Door, a noblewoman whose family has been murdered, is on a quest to find the agent that slaughtered her family and thwart the destruction of this underworld kingdom. If Richard is ever to return to his former life, he must join the journey to save Door’s world—and find a way to survive.

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KAT HOOPER, who started this site in June 2007, earned a Ph.D. in neuroscience and psychology at Indiana University (Bloomington) and now teaches at the University of North Florida. When she reads fiction, she wants to encounter new ideas and lots of imagination. She wants to view the world in a different way. She wants to have her mind blown. She loves beautiful language and has no patience for dull prose, vapid romance, or cheesy dialogue. She prefers complex characterization, intriguing plots, and plenty of action. Favorite authors are Jack Vance, Robin Hobb, Kage Baker, William Gibson, Gene Wolfe, Richard Matheson, and C.S. Lewis.

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STUART STAROSTA, on our staff since March 2015, is a lifelong SFF reader who makes his living reviewing English translations of Japanese equity research. Despite growing up in beautiful Hawaii, he spent most of his time reading as many SFF books as possible. After getting an MA in Japanese-English translation in Monterey, CA, he has lived in Tokyo, Japan for the last 10 years with his wife, daughter, and dog named Lani. Stuart's reading goal is to fill in all the gaps in his reading of classic SF novels and Hugo/Nebula winners, as well as David Pringle's 100 Best SF and Fantasy Novels, before moving back to reading newer books. His favorite authors include Philip K Dick, China Mieville, Iain M. Banks, J.G. Ballard, Neal Stephenson, Kurt Vonnegut, George R.R. Martin, Neil Gaiman, Robert Silverberg, Roger Zelazny, Ursula K. LeGuin, Guy Gavriel Kay, Walter Jon Williams, N.K. Jemisin, Arthur C. Clarke, H.G. Wells, Olaf Stapledon, J.R.R. Tolkien, Mervyn Peake, etc.

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6 comments

  1. I loved the setting and enjoyed the supporting characters thoroughly (in fact, I loved the scene with Richard’s ex-fiance at the banquet!). I thought the scariness of being homeless ran all through this book. I agree with you about the primary characters, but this book remains a favorite of mine.

  2. I liked that scene, too.

    The scariness of being homeless and mentally ill — I though that was really done well. That and the setting were what I enjoyed most about Neverwhere. I hope he’ll write more in London Underground.

  3. This was a solid three stars for me. I liked it but didn't love it and don't remember much about it now.
  4. Great, dark ideas that don’t take themselves seriously is one of my biggest pet peeves in fantasy fiction. I had this title on my list to review on own blog, but now I’m wondering if I should take it off. It sounds like the things I’d be looking for fell a little short in this work. Never read Gaiman so Im not author-loyal either. Too many recent titles have left me down in the dark department. Maybe I’m getting jaded.

  5. I found everything about this book except the marvelous setting eminently forgettable.
  6. Glad to see I’m not the only one who wasn’t amazed by this story. I like the author’s books and narration quite a bit, so I felt a little guilty to give a lukewarm review, but this confirms my impression. I’ve just started American Gods and it’s a lot more adult in tone and theme so far!

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