By: Neil Gaiman
Date Finished: 04.06.12
“It starts with doors.”
There are two Londons, the one we know and London Below which houses those who have fallen through the cracks. There are sewers and abandoned subway tunnels, yes, but there are also estates and labyrinths and echoes of buildings borrowed from the surface. It is an anachronistic city with a society patched together from different eras. Civilization has evolved more slowly than it did on the surface and the people there have a cruder nature by necessity. It seems most of the inhabitants possess some magic skill although only a few are highlighted in the book. London Below is a treacherous mishmash of people, places, and customs abandoned by modern society. This may be a magical world, but it is certainly no Narnia.
Much of London Below is mapped out by literalism. “Knightsbridge” is actually “Night’s Bridge,” owned by darkness and living dreams. There really is an earl at “Earl’s Court,” black friars at “Blackfriars,” and presumably a raven at “Raven’s Court” although we never meet it. Knowledge of the London tube stations would come in handy at such points, but the protagonist’s reactions are big enough to fill in the blanks. In fact, for an adult male, protagonist Richard Mayhew borders on whiny teenage girl at times. But he tends to rely on sarcasm when he’s scared out of his wits which keeps him interesting.
Gaiman’s style is… different. It”s a good different and it’s a I-can’t-believe-he-got-away-with-that different. I think I prefer his tone in the short stories of Smoke and Mirrors where Gaiman’s voice gives instant personality to a piece. In the long-term it doesn’t sit as comfortably. Still, the oddity fits the story well and makes the book distinct. Somehow the book mimics the Hero’s Journey almost exactly and includes many archetypes, yet it defies convention. The style contributes to this effect, making a timeless plot completely Gaiman-ized. (Can we please make that a real term?)
I loved the ending. I’m afraid I will enter the land of spoilers if I go into details, but I’m hard pressed to name a book with a better one (Howl’s Moving Castle is the only ending I can vividly remember right now). Admittedly, I did worry a bit when it seemed Richard would stick with the wrong path, but he saved himself at just the right time. The best endings have to be worrisome; perfection must be earned. It may be just me, but I finished with a resonant image in my head. Gaiman sure stuck the landing. (When editing this, I flipped through the beginning of the book and the opening lines are just as striking as the end. I love when that happens! It makes me giddy.)
It has taken me a long time to process this one — I liked the book, but I’m still not entirely sure why. Whether you read Neverwhere or not, I recommend Smoke and Mirrors if you want a taste of Gaiman’s work (or if you like fantasy stories at all).
At the end of the day: For me.