Story Saturday: Grave Beginnings

This week I’m reading Grave Beginnings by R.R. Virdi, the first in his Grave Report series. I’d heard good things about Virdi’s writing, and I thought it was time to find out for myself.

I’m enjoying this book, but before I say more, I should to give fair warning: if copy edit issues bother you, this book may not be for you. The book needs a pass or two from a good copy editor. That’s not enough to spoil a book for me, but it is for some people. I don’t want to mislead them. This was Virdi’s first novel, and it shows.

Now for those who can handle some typos, this is a pretty interesting story so far. It’s sort of Quantum Leap meets Deadman, and I mean that in a very good way. Vincent Graves is a deceased spirit (don’t call him a ghost – there are many kinds of undead in this world, but only one Vincent) with the power/curse to inhabit bodies of those who have recently died from supernatural causes. His mission: to find the supernatural evil-doer who caused the death, bring them to justice, and bring peace to the deceased. Vincent’s guide in this mission is the enigmatic Church, a servant of some unnamed supernatural power himself. Church carries Vincent’s notes from one body to the next, and also provides Vincent with all that is known about the mission, as well as a time limit.

In this, Vincent’s first appearance (but not his first mission by a long shot), Vincent awakens in the body of a museum curator who has been buried in someone else’s coffin (still occupied). It’s not Vincent’s first time being buried “alive”, so he knows how to reach air; but it all goes downhill from there. Church has little information to offer, and imposes a scant thirteen-hour deadline. Worse, Church seems frightened by the situation. Whatever supernatural force is loose, it’s the biggest Vincent has ever faced. Before his death, the curator encountered some mystical power which rejuvenated him by thirty years or more, and also a force that killed him. Was it the same force? I’ll have to read more to find out.

This is a pretty good start. The world-building has a lot of new twists on old tropes, nicely surprising. Vincent is an interesting protagonist. He can be heavy on the sarcasm as a way to face the unknown. It gets a bit heavy at times, but I think it makes sense for the character. There are many things he can’t control, so instead of despairing, he jokes about them.

I’m a slow reader, and I have some other reading and critiquing obligations, so this will probably be Story Saturday for a couple more weeks, at least. I’ll keep you posted!

Story Saturday: Neverwhere (Again)

III

I’m a slow reader. Pretty busy. So I’m only about 76% of the way through Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman. I’m enjoying it too much to rush through it just for the sake of a blog post.

Last week I said:

In Neverwhere, Neil Gaiman takes the tropes of fairy tales and reinvents them for a story about class conflict in modern London.

Let’s look at some of those fantasy tropes and see how Gaiman uses them in his own unique way. But that will require a…

Spoiler Alert!

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Good vs. Evil

The ultimate fantasy trope, one which some find outdated and clichéd, is Good vs. Evil. The modern fashion is for things to be morally gray, with no one purely good or purely evil.

Well, Gaiman can be as modern as any author; but in this book, he actually hews quite closely to the trope. There is Good: Door is good. Her late father Portico was good, an idealist who aspired to unite London Below for the betterment of all. Richard Mayhew thinks all he wants is to survive and get home; but it’s his innate goodness that draws him into the story in the first place. Unlike the rest of London Above, when he sees someone in trouble, he cannot look away. He has to help Door. And thus he becomes part of London Below.

And there is Evil. Mr. Croup and Mr. Vandemar are walking avatars of Evil. The Velvets are seductive Evil. Others are vain, selfish, spiteful, hateful. But worst, perhaps, is the banal evil of London above: the ability for Londoners to look right past the suffering of London Below.

The most modern, morally gray character is also the most popular with many readers: the marquis de Carabas. He would slice your throat… if there were something in it for him. He would save your life… but only if he owed you something (or perhaps because it would put you in his debt). He trades in favors, and he always fulfills his obligations. And he expects you to do so as well.

Hero

The novel is many things: an allegory, a quest, an engaging yarn… But in the main, I think it is the story of Richard Mayhew discovering the hero inside him. He starts as a slightly out-of-place Scotsman in London. In the end, he is one of the most recognized heroes of London Below. And he is a hero not because of strength or bravery, but because of a deeper decency: whenever he faces a choice, he ultimately does the right thing, even if it frightens him.

Dark Lord

All right, I’ll say it again: SPOILER ALERT! I MEAN IT! The Angel Islington is a classic Dark Lord, though more in the style of Saruman than Sauron. He made a horrible mistake, and he thinks he sees a way to make the world right – no matter who he has to lie to, manipulate, or kill to get there. He is literally a Fallen Angel, a classic Dark Lord type.

Quest

The entire story is, in essence, a quest. Or perhaps more accurately, a Quest Chain, where each small Quest raises a new question, leading to a new Quest. At first, Richard seeks the Floating Market and Door, while Door and the marquis seek a bodyguard. Then the group seek the Angel Islington to tell Door who killed her family. Then Islington sends them to get a key. Once they get the key, they have a new quest to find Down Street, the new path to Islington. In this summary, the plot sounds mechanical, like levels in a video game. But Gaiman hides the mechanics behind rich characters and a thoroughly imaginative world.

Magic

Oh, there’s magic. It’s not flashy like Harry Potter. It’s subtle like Gandalf, maybe moreso. But Islington scries via a pool. The Nightsbridge steals travelers away. The Earls Court resides in a subway train that cannot possibly hold it. And is it merely indifference that makes London Below invisible to London Above, or is it a spell?

Oh, and… SPOILER ALERT! The marquis de Carabas comes back from the dead.

Oh, there’s magic in London Below. It’s just subtle and inconsistent, and you don’t want to rely on it too much.

Medievalism

There’s a touch of Medievalism in the book. The fashions range from gothic punk to ancient, with medieval represented. And the social structure is baronies and fiefdoms. But the Medievalism is more of a flavor than a dominant theme.

Ancient World

Somewhere ancient Roman Legionnaires still roam Below. Croup and Vandemar claim to have caused the fall of Troy. Islington caused the drowning of Atlantis. London Below is as old as London itself, and some of the denizens are older.

Races

This trope, perhaps, is nowhere to be found in the book. Croup and Vandemar are surely not human, though in human guise. Islington is literally an angel. And the Velvets seem human, but are closer in nature to vampires.

But aside from those, every character you meet is seemingly human. Door’s face is sometimes described as “elfin”, but it’s never explicitly said that she’s an elf (or that there are elves). So I think it’s safe to say that this book is populated primarily by people.

Oh, and rats. Be nice to the rats. You never know when you may need a favor from a rat.

Story Saturday: Neverwhere by Neil Gaiman

In Neverwhere, Neil Gaiman takes the tropes of fairy tales and reinvents them for a story about class conflict in modern London. Yeah, I know, that sounds dreary and preachy, but it’s not. It’s Gaiman-y, and that means magical. I’m rereading it because it reminds me of a story in my Idea Pile, and I want to remember how this sort of story is done right. I gave it 5 stars out of 5 on my first read. This time I’m trying to figure out how to give it 6 out of 5, since I’m catching all of the foreshadowing that I missed the first time.

Summary: It’s Gaiman, in my opinion the finest fantasist we have today. And it’s my favorite of his works. Even though it’s not as cosmic, I like it better than The Sandman, and that’s saying a lot! If you’re a Gaiman fan and you haven’t read this yet, what are you waiting for? And if you’re new to Gaiman, this is a great start.

This story originated as a BBC TV series and has also been adapted as a graphic novel.

Now for the…

Spoiler Alert!

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Unbeknownst to most, there are two Londons: London Above, the one we all know; and London Below, a community living mostly under the streets of London Above, but also on the roofs, in back alleys, and anywhere else that the people of London Above choose not to go. And choose is the operative word: London Below and its residents are all around them, but the people Above choose not to see them. Look right through them, even. If forced to notice someone from Below, they forget as soon as possible.

But when the Lady Door, a noble from a powerful London Below family, lies injured on a London street, Richard Mayhew – over the objections of his fiancée Jessica – refuses to look away. He insists on helping Door. He is awakened to the existence of London Below. And once he is, he is drawn in. His eyes are opened, and he can never go back to what he once was. He is now of London Below, and Jessica and everyone he knows have forgotten him.

Yes, it’s an obvious allegory for a modern city divided between the powerful and the homeless, the dispossessed. As I’ve described it here, it sounds like a heavy-handed, clumsy allegory. But that’s because I’m not Gaiman. Neil Gaiman does not do clumsy! (Plus he has two to three chapters to introduce what I summarized in two paragraphs.) As Richard and Door and their companions hunt the killers of Door’s family, the allegory fades into the background behind a classic fantasy quest told in a most unusual setting and populated with unusual characters, including:

  • The marquis de Carabas, a wiley character with only one principle: trading favors. He is neither a good man nor a bad; but if he owes you, he’s a good man to have on your side. And if you owe him, pay up, or you’ll pay…
  • Hunter, a woman obsessed with hunting the most dangerous legendary creatures of the modern world.
  • Croup and Vandemar, the immortal, evil assassins hired to kill Door’s family. But who hired them? That’s the real quest.

There are a lot more, of course, but these are the primary characters. Each is richly fleshed out, realistic and exotic. The story is told mostly from Richard’s POV, as the reader’s proxy in this strange world, but occasionally follows the other characters on side journeys.

And the last character is London itself, Above and Below. Gaiman contrasts the two worlds metaphorically and brilliantly. Place names that have no meaning in London Above are revealed to have rich, magical histories in London Below.

I’m enjoying this book more in my reread. I highly recommend it!