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Dark Cities Underground

by Lisa Goldstein

hardcover edition

Lisa Goldstein has the dubious fortune to be one of those authors who are widely praised by critics and largely ignored by readers. Her fantasy novels shade heavily into magical realism, and tend to be cleanly and clearly written, and full of emotional subtleties The latest of these, Dark Cities Underground is an oddly dark and dreamlike fantasy about archetypes, rebirth, and underground trains.

The story centers around a (fictional) beloved series of children's books, the Neverwas series, about the adventures of Jeremy Jerome Gerontius Jones in the World Below. Ruthie is a reporter working on a biography of the author of the famous Neverwas books. When she interviews the author's son, she discovers that he's now middle-aged, resents both the books and his mother, and goes by Jerry to avoid being recognized as the famous Jeremy -- not unlike the real-life Christopher Milne's dislike of being recognized as Christopher Robin from the Winnie-the-Pooh stories.

As even more people start showing up on Jerry's doorstep with questions about Neverwas, Jerry begins to remember impossible things from his childhood. These aren't happy, whimsical, Disney-movie memories, either. The enduring children's tales persist because they're horror stories at heart, however whitewashed they are for mass presentation, and they're a lot less traumatic from the outside. As Ruthie and Jerry are sucked further into the World Below, things grow curiouser and curiouser, and eventually develop into a long, involved, and reasonably interesting nightmare.

For all that Dark Cities Underground ties together threads from a double handful of classic children's stories, it's frustratingly lacking in the whimsy and wonder of those stories. That whimsy is present in Neil Gaiman's novel Neverwhere, which also ties the London Underground to a World Below of vagrants and archetypes; but Neverwhere is a fairly straightforward quest novel, while Dark Cities Underground spirals unexpectedly in toward its conclusion. Goldstein does write better prose than Gaiman; her style is much less self-conscious, a rarity in the urban fantasy field.

The novel's protagonists breathe and grow and change, but Goldstein has a tendency to treat supporting characters like carry-on luggage. They tag along silently as long as they're needed, push the plot in the necessary directions, and never develop much depth or humanity, no matter how curious or tragic their circumstances. Of course, this may be inevitable in a story full of archetypes, who tend to be rather inflexible by nature.

Dark Cities Underground is a mature, thoughtful novel that never quite turned into the story I wanted it to be. Check it out if you enjoy Neil Gaiman, Charles de Lint, or Gene Wolfe, or if you've always been suspicious of the subway.

-- Christina Schulman.
Reviewed in
January 2001

hardcover edition
Publisher: Tor
Date: June 1999
ISBN: 0-312-86828-6
Binding: hardcover
Pages: 256
Price: US $22.95

trade paperback edition
Publisher: Tor
Date: July 2000
ISBN: 0-312-86827-8
Binding: trade paperback
Pages: 256
Price: US $13.95

If you like this book, you will probably also enjoy:

Lisa Goldstein: Walking the Labyrinth

Neil Gaiman: Neverwhere

Charles de Lint: Memory and Dream
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Sep 2001 / CMS