I just finished Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere. I enjoyed it. What really struck me, as I read it, were all the "links" I could make. Some placed within the novel by Gaiman, some brought to the experience of reading by the particular reader, me.
Neverwhere tells the story of an everyman, Richard Mayhew, who is swept into another world beneath the streets of London, called London Below. This other London is peopled by those who have fallen through the cracks of our world, as well as some fanciful and pretty horrible characters, and also ones with otherworldly powers. I enjoyed the character and in-joke of the Marquis of Carabas and was concerned about his fate, maybe more than any other character in the story. Not that I didn't like Richard, but the Marquis was more engaging. But that's true of the Wizard of Oz (film), too, which is numerously referenced in Neverwhere. Everyone has a favorite character from that classic film. Mine was and still is the Tin Man, although I think the most intrepid member of Dorothy's crew may well have been Toto. Richard, like Dorothy, spends much of his time wanting to go back home. In this upside-down fairy tale he gets his wish and then gets to change his mind. What I found most intriguing about Richard was that even though he has completely lost his identity in the London he knows and has become a walking metaphor of the homeless, faceless poor that try to live off the city streets with all-too-short a life, he never completely loses touch with who he is. No matter who he runs across in the strange societies of London Below, he never hesitates to introduce himself, with his full name, "I'm Richard Mayhew." Maybe he's just more polite than my fellow Americans, but I was impressed.
Another interesting aspect of Neverwhere is the idea of youth, and growing up. One could read the story of Richard's adventures in London Below as his maturation process. But I also saw it as a depiction of what it's like to be young in the city. City life and youth itself can be exciting, dirty, scary, sexy, even life-threatening. If Richard chose to return to his (our) normal world, he could always look back on his time with the Marquis and Door and the others as his wild youth, much like many of us have dim but pleasant memories of our own youthful escapades.
While reading Neverwhere I experienced echoes of other books I have recently read and enjoyed. As each step of Richard's journey took him closer to somewhere or someone even stranger or more dangerous than the last, reading can take you on a larger journey, from book to book, weaving a common thread through different stories. A few months back I read Rune by Christopher Fowler, whose Bryant and May mystery series I enjoy. Like Neverwhere, Rune is set in London with a male protagonist who doesn't yet realize he might like to break free from his relationship with a perfect woman who isn't perfect for him. An interesting yet offbeat young woman comes into his life and the story is off and running. More a horror story than fantasy, Rune still makes for a good read. In fact my only quibble with both books is that there is a lot, maybe too much, flowing blood. As good as both of these writers are, I was wondering how horrible Neverwhere's Mr. Croup and Mr. Vandemar could still have been without the need to be overly descriptive of half-eaten kittens and the like.
I also recently finished Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials series, with the wonderful female protagonist Lyra Silvertongue. These books start out in an alternate Oxford and then take off for worlds familiar and imaginary. I can't say enough about this great series of books, except that I look forward to my daughter being old enough to enjoy them. In the meantime I will most likely be reaching for Gaiman's latest and see where the book will take me and what other books and worlds I may discover on the way.