In Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere, Richard Mayhew is yanked out of his ordinary London existence when he finds a girl bleeding in the streets. After helping her, he learns that a) her name is Door, b) she lives in London Below, a subterranean version of the city, and c) by helping her, he’s made himself invisible to London Above. What follows becomes a quest to save both Door’s life and his.
It’s a fun premise. Most of the story takes place in sewers and tunnels beneath London, where people who’ve “slipped between the cracks” use bits of magic and anachronisms from other times to survive. They can pass unremarked in the streets Above, even holding markets in public areas. But they can’t stay; they belong Below. As much as I enjoyed the setup, however, Richard is too much of an everyman for me to root for. Forgetful, whiny, fearful (at least initially, until danger begins to embolden him)—he feels a touch too real for a fantasy book with so many extraordinary elements. Shadow, the hero of Gaiman’s American Gods, is (seemingly) nothing special either, but his weaknesses don't make him unlikeable, and his strengths are ones most of us would want ourselves. Moreover, Gaiman’s voice in Neverwhere felt excessively whimsical… until I listened to the audiobook and actually heard him reading the story. Then it worked. I’m not sure what the disconnect was when I could only see his prose on the page, and this was a reversal of how these things usually jibe for me—normally, I don’t like an audio rendition unless I’ve read a little of its source first. But Gaiman’s spoken narration drew me in. So: while this was a strange reading experience for me, it proved to be an enjoyable urban fantasy. If you’re interested in reading (or listening to) a more concise version of Stephen King, Gaiman is worth a try.