In terms of its general atmosphere, I’ve seen Neverwhere compared to Alice in Wonderland, but it’s really more as if Alice in Wonderland had a love-child with Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, which grew up into a punk teenager and ran away to live on the streets of London. As far as plot goes, I think that a quote from the book itself sums it up pretty well:
Richard wrote a diary entry in his head.
Dear diary, he began. On Friday I had a job, a fiancée, a home, and a life that makes sense. (Well, as much as any life makes sense.) Then I found an injured girl bleeding on the pavement, and I tried to be a Good Samaritan. Now I’ve got no fiancée, no home, no job, and I’m walking around a couple hundred feet under the streets of London with the projected life expectancy of a suicidal mayfly.
The hero, a mild-mannered and rather Arthur Dent-ish young executive named Richard Mayhew, has been sucked into London Under: a grimy, magical dimension populated by a mix of humans, magical beings, and those in between. It’s a jumble of the exotic, mundane, beautiful, grisly, and goofily humorous–there are succubi, Ratspeakers, psychopathic killers, an angel, a girl who can unlock any door, and a group of Blackfriars who seem straight out of Monty Python. London Under is a bizarre and patchwork sort of world, but Gaiman makes it real and compelling, and it’s a great pleasure to read about.
The plot is less complex–a girl pursued by mysterious assassins, an imprisoned angel, a series of quests for places and objects. Gaiman himself has called it a “plot coupon” story (a term for stories where the heroes have to collect enough “plot coupons” to mail away for the ending), but it’s well-done, fast-paced and with plenty of good twists. The characterization isn’t stunning either–Gaiman doesn’t delve deep into anyone except Richard, who is a standard well-meaning-but-naive hero who grows up through the standard adversities. The prose is quite good, with clever turns of phrase and a knack for shifting effortlessly from creepy to evocative to dryly humorous. London Under is the real star of the story, and the experience of entering it vicariously through Richard is the real joy of the book.
Morally, the book is unexceptional. There are mentions of some people wanting to stop the constant feuding of London Under, and hideous plots of conquest–but what it really boils down to is that the bad guys want to torture and kill our heroes, and our heroes don’t want to be tortured and killed. It’s not deep, but as morality goes, not torturing and killing people is a good place to start. One of the side characters is of the “morally ambiguous reluctant ally” type, and he does some questionable magic. There are some references to Richard sleeping with his girlfriend but they’re quite minor. There’s also an angel knocking about, and while no one seems very religious, the angel is actually treated in a manner more or less compatible with Christianity.
As far as content goes: along with some swearing and sexual references, the main villains of this book are two sadistic, completely psychotic serial killers. While the descriptions are not greatly detailed, the two of them do some pretty hideous and gruesome things, and it’s implied that they do (and have done) even worse ones. This book is not for children or people who hate reading about violence.