Neverwhere is early Gaiman (published in 1996), and it shows. You can see him working on the formula that would make American Gods, Anansi Boys, and Coraline successes – unassuming Everyman gets sucked into a magical, dangerous new world and had to navigate through the insanity – but not quite getting it right. This reads sort of like a first draft of his later, more well-crafted books.
The story takes place in modern-day London, and our Everyman is Richard Mayhew, who discovers a girl bleeding on the street one night. He takes her to his apartment and patches her up, and almost immediately a sinister pair of not-quite-men appear at Richard’s apartment looking for the girl. The girl’s name is Door, and the rest of her family was murdered. Door has the ability to open things that are locked (hence her name), and is being hunted because of this ability. Richard tags along with her, not entirely willingly, into London Below, which is a classic Gaiman world of magic and terror. And, in true Gaiman fashion, the fate of the world hangs in the balance.
It’s a good story, the characters and worldbuilding are magnificent, and it’s full of Gaiman’s signature reminders that magical worlds are actually fucking terrifying, as well as plenty of his unexpectedly funny bits, like this exchange:
“The door was opened by a sleepy-looking footman, wearing a powdered, crooked wig and scarlet livery. He looked at the motley rabble on his doorstep with an expression that indicated that they had not been worth getting out of bed for.
‘Can I help you?’ said the footman. Richard had been told to fuck off and die with more warmth and good humor.”
But throughout the book, even as I was being alternately thrilled and horrified by the story, there was a palpable feeling that something was missing. The villains, while terrifying, were somehow not as threatening as they should have been; I saw several of the big plot twists coming a mile away; and somehow the big quest never felt important or developed enough. It was something involving a key – I read the book a few days ago, and already the details of the mission are slipping away – but I never felt like I really understood the importance of it all, and it just functioned as a way for the characters to keep hanging out and struggling against evil together. By the end of the book, the entire quest just felt like one big MacGuffin, and I was left feeling slightly deflated.
None of this should suggest, of course, that this book isn’t good. Because lest we forget, Average-Quality Gaiman is still Really Really Good Gaiman. Even after all the mild disappointments I listed, I still found myself invested in the world of London Below, and wishing that I could read more about it. Ultimately, the book functions as a good introduction to Gaiman and why we love him, but it doesn’t hold up to his later works.
Verdict: three out of five stars