Neverwhere: Wonderfully fantastical setting

Readers’ average rating:

Reposting to include Tadiana and Jana’s review of William Morrow’s new illustrated edition.

Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman fantasy book reviewsfantasy book reviews Neil Gaiman NeverwhereNeverwhere by Neil Gaiman

Neverwhere is a novel that improved dramatically for me on reread, which actually was a surprise to me. I originally read it about six years ago when, in an odd twist worthy of London Below, it mysteriously appeared one day on my clunky Kindle 2, without my having ordered it. About a month later it just as mysteriously disappeared again (luckily I had finished it just in time). I was fascinated by the marvelous and imaginative setting of Neverwhere and London Below, but only mildly entertained by the plot, which ― other than the beginning and the end ― I found quite forgettable.

Still, when I was offered the chance to read a 2016 edition of Neverwhere with the “author’s preferred text” and illustrations by Chris Riddell, whose illustrations make Gaiman’s The Sleeper and the Spindle so memorable, I jumped at the chance. It was a wise decision on my part.

Richard Mayhew, the “everyman” character whose impulsive kindness toward a wounded stranger on the street upends his life so dramatically, was a more sympathetic character for me in this reread. He becomes virtually invisible to normal Londoners, like the homeless whose ranks he physically and symbolically joins. Richard takes a chance, following the path of Door, the young girl he saved, down into London Below, a Byzantine setting with a bewildering assortment of fantastically strange characters. The plot is equally disorienting, a labyrinthine quest that takes Richard and his group from one place or contact to another, as Door tries to find out who killed her entire family, and why, and Richard hopes that somehow he’ll be able to regain his normal life in London Above. They’re relentlessly pursued by Croup and Vandemar, a pair of gleefully horrible assassins, whose employer is shrouded in secrecy.

Both the plot and the characters gained clarity and cohesiveness for me on my second read, freeing me to appreciate Gaiman’s wry humor and the intricacies of the story and its setting. I smiled at the family of Lord Portico (despite their tragic fate), who all have portal-related names and the ability to open doors and locks at will. And I understood better the nature of the capricious Marquis de Carabas:

The Marquis de Carabas was not a good man, and he knew himself well enough to be perfectly certain that he was not a brave man. He had long since decided that the world, Above or Below, was a place that wished to be deceived, and, to this end, he had named himself from a lie in a fairy tale, and created himself — his clothes, his manner, his carriage — as a grand joke. 

Districts and areas in London become weird characters or morph into something sinister. Hammersmith is a jeweler; Old Bailey (the London Central Criminal Court building) a feather-covered old man who lives on the rooftops; Earl’s Court is really an earl’s court, though an odd one indeed; Knightsbridge (an area of West London named after a crossing of the River Westbourne, now relegated to an underground river) becomes Night’s Bridge, a darkness-shrouded crossing that takes a terrible toll on those who pass. Blackfriars (an area in central London) is the home of the Black Friars, like Brother Sable and Brother Fuliginous. Most interesting to me was the real-world counterpart of the Angel Islington: The Angel, Islington is a historic landmark area (originally an inn called the Angel Hotel) on the corner of Islington High Street and Pentonville Road in Islington, an area of London. (The building is now a bank, but the Angel name has been adopted by an adjacent pub.) This web page is a Google map that links actual London locations to their references in Neverwhere, a fun exercise for those who’ve read this book.

Riddell’s whimsical pencil drawings add greatly to the story. Along with the full page illustrations at the beginning of most chapters, there are countless sketches that wrap around and through the text. Rats peek around the corners of paragraphs; lovely, vampire-ish Velvets eye you from the tops and sides of the pages. It’s entrancing.

This illustrated edition of Neverwhere also includes Gaiman’s aptly named 2014 short story “How the Marquis Got His Coat Back,” which should be read after the novel. In it we learn more about the Marquis’ family, and meet some characters that were only briefly referenced in Neverwhere, like the sinister shepherds of Shepherd’s Bush.

If you’re going to read any edition of Neverwhere, I strongly recommend this illustrated edition, whether you’re already a fan of London Below and its inhabitants, or are considering checking it out for the first time. Despite some weaknesses in the story, it’s well worth your time to experience this fantastical world, especially as envisioned by Chris Riddell.

~Tadiana Jones


fantasy book reviews Neil Gaiman NeverwhereI hadn’t read Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere before opening up the illustrated edition, though I’d read Kat and Stuart’s reviews of the audiobook and heard, from trusted friends who are hardcore fans of Gaiman’s work, that it’s an enjoyable read. I’m glad that the illustrated novel is the author’s preferred text, as I always prefer to read the version that’s closest to an author’s intent, and the story tacked on at the end, “How the Marquis Got His Coat Back,” was a short-but-worthwhile trip back to London Below and an opportunity to touch on some people and places not explored in Neverwhere.

Overall, the settings and the playful inventiveness of the story were the real winners for me, and it’s obvious how strongly Gaiman’s work has influenced writers, artists, and other creative people. For example, I’d be completely surprised if the Troll Market in Guillermo del Toro’s movie Hellboy 2 wasn’t inspired in some way by the Floating Market. And I loved the way that Gaiman took place-names throughout London Above and turned them into characters like the Black Friars or Old Bailey, each with their own eccentricities and charm.

Of the characters, Richard himself was the strongest in my eyes: even as the story opens, he’s a little unsure of himself and tremendously kind, which (of course) gets him mixed up in all of this trouble with Door and the Marquis de Carabas. I really appreciated that his storyline was propelled by his desperate desire to get out of London Below and back to the life he recognized, even if it wasn’t an exactly challenging or fulfilling life, as opposed to a heavy-handed lesson to be learned about being kind to strangers or homeless persons.

Messers Croup and Vandemar are terrifyingly delightful, the Marquis himself is charming, and I really enjoyed the unexpected twists in Hunter’s character, but Door herself was a little flat and one-note. Her quest is to find out who killed her entire family, and while she’s an active participant in that quest, so much of Neverwhere’s focus is on Richard’s reactions to the strangeness of London Below that Door turns into a supporting character — to borrow some of Joseph Campbell’s monomyth terminology, a combination of herald and mentor for Richard’s journeying hero — rather than a hero in her own right.

Chris Riddell’s illustrations are absolutely top-notch, and a perfect addition to Gaiman’s text. I thought it was a really great idea to fold the illustrations into the text itself, sometimes framing or interrupting a block of text, and sometimes taking up a full page for a portrait of Old Bailey or the beautiful Angel Islington. And the illustrations carry through into “How the Marquis Got His Coat Back,” which was an added delight.

If you’re new to Gaiman’s work or you’re curious at all about Neverwhere, I definitely recommend picking up the illustrated edition. Gaiman’s story and settings are wonderfully imaginative, Riddell’s drawings match the tone and substance of the story perfectly, and you’re sure to spend many hours enjoying a peek into an entirely separate (yet somehow recognizable) London.

~Jana Nyman


fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsfantasy book reviews Neil Gaiman NeverwhereRichard 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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TADIANA JONES, on our staff since July 2015, is an intellectual property lawyer with a BA in English. She inherited her love of classic and hard SF from her father and her love of fantasy and fairy tales from her mother. She lives with her husband and four children in a small town near the mountains in Utah. Tadiana juggles her career, her family, and her love for reading, travel and art, only occasionally dropping balls. She likes complex and layered stories and characters with hidden depths. Favorite authors include Lois McMaster Bujold, Brandon Sanderson, Robin McKinley, Connie Willis, Isaac Asimov, Larry Niven, Megan Whalen Turner, Patricia McKillip, Mary Stewart, Ilona Andrews, and Susanna Clarke.

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JANA NYMAN, with us since January 2015, is a freelance copy-editor who has lived all over the United States, but recently settled in Colorado with her dog and a Wookiee. Jana was exposed to science fiction and fantasy at an early age, watching Star Wars and Star Trek movie marathons with her family and reading works by Robert Heinlein and Ray Bradbury WAY before she was old enough to understand them; thus began a lifelong fascination with what it means to be human. Jana enjoys reading all kinds of books, but her particular favorites are fairy- and folktales (old and new), fantasy involving dragons or other mythological beasties, contemporary science fiction, and superhero fiction. Some of her favorite authors are Bradbury, James Tiptree, Jr., Madeleine L'Engle, and Philip Pullman.

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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 13 years with his wife, daughter, and dog named Lani. Stuart's reading goal is to read as many classic SF novels and Hugo/Nebula winners as possible, David Pringle's 100 Best SF and 100 Best Fantasy Novels, along with newer books & series that are too highly-praised to be ignored. His favorite authors include Philip K Dick, China Mieville, Iain M. Banks, N.K. Jemisin, J.G. Ballard, Lucius Shepard, Neal Stephenson, Kurt Vonnegut, George R.R. Martin, Neil Gaiman, Robert Silverberg, Roger Zelazny, Ursula K. LeGuin, Guy Gavriel Kay, Arthur C. Clarke, H.G. Wells, Olaf Stapledon, J.R.R. Tolkien, Mervyn Peake, etc.

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10 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. ETA: I've changed my rating from 3 to 4, based on a 2017 reread, as explained in my review above.
  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!

  7. Jana, I have to admit I’m surprised to see such a high rating for Neverwhere from you, given your comments while we were reading this book. What did the most to improve your opinion?

  8. The new illustrated edition is my go-to for All Hallow’s Read gifts this year.

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