Neil Gaiman is one of those people who has earned my profound jealousy. His creative talents have given him success in a multiplicity of areas: fantasy, children’s books, and comics among them. I’ve recently gone on an audiobook kick to occupy my time on my long commute to and from my day job. Gaiman’s Neverwhere (1999) looked interesting so I bought a copy and discovered that he has yet another talent – voice acting. Unlike most authors, he reads his own novels. The question is, is he any good at it?
The answer is, yes, he is. Furthermore, I had no idea when I picked up the book was that it was a novelization of a BBC TV series – also written by Mr. Gaiman, of course. The story’s protagonist is a young but stodgy London financial analyst, Richard Mayhew. One evening he happens upon an injured and frightened young woman who refuses to let him call the police or take her to a hospital. He’s determined to help her, so he takes her to his apartment despite the ire of his fiancée.
The injured girl is named Door and is not, as Richard suspected, homeless. She comes from a magical world called London Below, which is invisible to normal mortals. Her entire family has been murdered and the assassins are pursuing her to finish the job. To ensure her safe return, Richard ventures into the London sewers to find a man who called the Marquis de Carabas. The Marquis, actually a charming swindler, escorts Door home, whereupon Richard thinks his life can go back to normal.
Richard finds to his dismay that no one remembers him, not even his fiancée or his coworkers. He can only make himself be seen by demanding someone’s attention, after which they soon forget him. When his landlord brings new tenants to his apartment as if he’s not there, he realizes his contact with these strange people has infected him with the magic of London Below. He sets off to find Door and the Marquis in an effort to reverse the magic and get his life back.
I thoroughly enjoyed Richard’s adventures in the parallel world underneath London’s basements, sewers, and tube stations. Though the denizens are magical they’re not tropes like elves or faeries; Gaiman’s underground folk are all original. The pacing is slower than most modern novels, but with Gaiman’s rich description and clever dialog, it never gets boring. The humor comes from Richard’s reactions to odd people and customs of London Below, which captures different periods of historical London in bubbles of forgotten time. Places below are a series of twisted puns on real-life London – for example, Knightsbridge is the treacherous Night’s Bridge and Blackfriars is a monastery of brown-skinned warrior monks. Richard’s quest to get back home leads him to join Door (who has the magical ability to open any portal) in her dangerous quest to find out why her family was murdered.
It’s a bit on the long side, and the book’s worst offense is probably its drawn-out epilogue. That last part was rather predictable as well. But the high point of the audio edition is Gaiman’s verbal talent. Some audiobook readers get carried away, but Gaiman’s accents are charming and yet understated. Despite its minor deficiencies, I loved this book and gave it 4.5 out of 5 stars.