Something is rotten in the works of Gaiman

Time to inaugurate the new year with some writing, so here's a review of Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman, my first read of 2011.

Neverwhere is a fantasy novel about the magical adventures of Richard Mayhew, a young apathetic investment analyst in London, UK. After a boring day at work, Mayhew unwittingly discovers that London is actually split into two worlds: There is London Above, the busy metropolis Mayhew was familiar with; there is also London Below, a dangerous maze of underground sewers and tunnels home to a dark subculture.

Neverwhere was my first introduction to Neil Gaiman, a best-selling fantasy author most famous for The Sandman comic book series. I wasn't too impressed with Neverwhere: It read like an amateur foray into novel-writing rather than the product of a fantasy-genre specialist.

In terms of writing style, Neverwhere fails to make the reader suspend disbelief. Every fiction book asks us to imagine the world as the author writes it. However, the more farfetched the plot, the harder the author has to work to keep the reader engaged. Which leads to my problem with Gaiman: he's a creative author, but not a very convincing one. Just as you immerse yourself in his alternate universe, you read something so ridiculous it draws you back to reality. It's like watching Lord of the Rings and seeing the lighting director drinking a Red Bull in one of the scenes.

One example was the dialogue. A few conversations into the book, you realize that every character sounds the same. Gaiman just cannot distinguish between how a powerful female warrior or a precocious young teenager or a wise old monk might speak. It's hard to suspend disbelief when you notice the ventriloquist, not the puppets.

Another issue was the logic. Too often you find yourself reading along and thinking "wait, that makes no sense. Why did X happen? Why didn't Y try Z instead?". Of course, by definition, a fantasy novel includes make-believe. But there's a difference between lacking reality and lacking logic: One makes for a good fantasy read, the other distracts and annoys the reader.

Neverwhere started off promising. The idea of a city being split into two parts (ego and id, anyone?) lends itself to interesting questions: What types of people populate London Above versus London Below? How do the two worlds interact? Do the residents of London Above or London Below have a clearer picture of reality? Instead, Neverwhere relies on plot cliches: it's a book about the Unwitting Hero who has a Very Important Quest to complete with the help of Magical Objects so that he may Save The World. Overall, Neverwhere is not great, not good but acceptable for a quick skim.


digitally404 said...

Just say it. It sucks!

annick said...

Great review! I have never read this author, but have heard much of him. Your post has convinced me to read some of his stuff, if only to see how this ponderous writing sounds