After reading a series of books that I didn't end up enjoying much, I decided it was time to read something I was sure I would like. Continuing with the urban fantasy theme, I chose Neverwhere.
At least in my memory, Gaiman's career has gone something like Sandman > Good Omens > Neverwhere > Terrifying Levels of Fame. I might have a few of those steps out of order. My copy is from 1996 and has the BBC cover. I got it at the Harvard Book Store, where I was working at the time. I read it promptly and have been carrying it around ever since; eighteen years later, I remembered literally nothing except for the bit about de Carabas' heart and the final page.
I enjoyed the reread. I think it's a better book than, say, Guilty Pleasures. Why?
Point one: we are not in the real world. Both Dead Until Dark and Guilty Pleasures are set in worlds exactly like our own, except for the vampires and werewolves wandering around. Neverwhere is built on the premise of two worlds--the ordinary everyday experienced by most people (London Above), and the mytho-poetic scavenger society, adrift in space-time, in which the adventure takes place (London Below). Since London Below only has to follow its own inner logic, there is no point at which the real world is subject to painful distortions in service of the story, no point at which I said, "But how is that supposed to WORK?"
Point two: characterization. This one is more arguably personal preference. Some people like a wish-fulfillment POV character, and for them, Anita and/or Sookie might fit that bill. I found both of them deeply annoying, Sookie because of her general clueless ineptitude and Anita because her behavior was consistently baffling.
Richard Mayhew is not a badass, not a Batman, and has no magic powers. He's an amiable nonentity. He gets himself into trouble by demonstrating compassion for an injured girl, whom he finds on his way out to an important dinner with his fiancee. He spends much of the book in a potentially-fatal state of confusion, but he has a good heart.
We get to see a fair amount of Door, including some scenes from her POV, which is believably sketched. Most of the supporting cast are self-interested to a greater or lesser degree. Croup and Vandemar are monsters, not people; we are not expected to understand them. Although they may veer into mythic archetype on occasion, there is no point at which the reader looks at these people and says, "But why would ANYONE do THAT?"
Point three: plot. Bad People (in the persons of the delightful Mr. Croup and Mr. Vandemar) are after a girl called Door, having already disposed of her family on behalf of a mysterious employer. Richard helps her, and as a consequence his life in London Above is erased, forcing him to join her and her band of protectors in hopes of getting back what he has lost.
That's it. Simple, straightforward motivations and actions. Hunters and hunted leapfrog across the bizarre world of London Below on a quest in which item A leads to item B leads to item C leads to Goal. Other than the identity of the killers' employer, there is little obfuscation. Although there are plenty of flourishes in this story, every element, every character has their role. The structure is simple and graceful.
Point four: writing. This is where things get a little gooey--and snobbish, but this is a post about why I think one book is better than another, so you're stuck with my opinion. Like all of Gaiman's work, Neverwhere drips with mythic references. It is a fairy tale. A man is taken away from the world he knows, has an adventure, and finds himself changed. The logic that governs is not that of our world, but it is logic we still find familiar.
(The first time I read this book, I didn't like the ending. I'm still not entirely happy with it, but I think it's mostly because London Below is not presented to us as a place where people can actually live. We see scavengers and supernatural menaces, but no place into which it seems Richard might fit. Perhaps he'll go live with Door.)
The references give it a sense of layering and also of consistency. The book's foundation is strong in a particular literary place, so while the tone of a particular scene may be comic or tragic, it never strays far from its birthplace. You can feel all of its extended family crowd around while you read.
I'm not sure, as I sit typing this, whether it's possible to write a good fantasy novel without that kind of awareness of where it comes from, without invoking (or arguing with, perhaps) some kind of tradition. (I welcome suggestions to the contrary.)
One of the things that bothered me about the vampire books as I was reading them was their emptiness. There is nothing in them to reward a close reading, nothing below the surface. Their vampires and shapeshifters owe nothing to anyone but themselves, and the authors don't build out their worlds to any extent; as a consequence, those worlds feel small and thin. They might as well be cartoons.
Neverwhere isn't perfect by any means. I can see plenty of reasons why someone might not find it appealing. I don't, however, see any ground on which to argue that it's badly written--not in comparison to my other recent reading, at least.