Interworld by Neil Gaiman

(7.4/10) A very exciting book in which an Average Joe goes walking!

Neil Gaiman has been a favourite author of mine ever since I ran into Neverwhere; both the novel and tv series as a teenager, his sideways take on reality, surreal humour and ironic poetry have always very much appealed to me. While I've only ever read one book by Michael Reaves, Shadow Hunter, it was one of the very few novels based on Star Wars I've ever really enjoyed.

Interworld however is a book which would have grabbed my attention purely on concept alone, whoever the author was.

The book is told in the first person from the perspective of Joey Harker, an average fifteen year old living in the small American town of Greenville with a knack for getting lost. On a routine assignment for his social studies class, Joey gets a bit more lost than usual, and starts stumbling into alternative realities. This is because Joey is a Walker, with the ability to seek out and open portals between the different worlds of the Altiverse, a set of related worlds caught between the principles of science and magic. This makes Joey the latest recruit to Interworld, a small para military organization of Walkers who oppose both the ultra scientific Binary and gothically magical Hex, forces who want to rule the entire Altiverse and convert all worlds to either scientific or magical principles.

One of the first things which struck me about Interworld, is that it begins with a very familiar and recognizable structure, and yet I didn't care at all because the concept behind that structure and the world we find out about is just so wonderfully bizarre. As with so many novels, both pre and post Harry potter, we start with the average Joe (quite literally in this case), wandering into strange circumstances, getting mysteriously attacked by weird assailants, then being rescued by a benevolent yet equally mysterious stranger who tells him he has special powers and recruits him to fight the forces of evil.

However when the wandering includes pirate ships flying through space and surreal landscapes of corriscating colours and chaotic, synaesthesic impressions, and the forces of evil include a man covered in living tattooes, a creature made out of living jelly and a sorceress who loves the colour pink and talks like a valley girl, only the most pedantic of literary hacks could call the book predictable.

This parade of big, bright ideas continues through the whole book, from a life form that communicates through colour, to the truly nightmarish things which both the Hex and Binary do to captured Walkers to retrieve their essence. Indeed even though The Hex (who serve as the book's major antagonists), are very recognizably black magicians with all trappings from bubbling retorts to goblin servants, there is just a unique flavour to them that makes them stand out from all the other black magicians out there, and also makes them the best sort of villains, the kind you love to hate.
 
While the book's style isn't quite as darkly poetic as I'd expect from Gaiman, it still does have it's humorous or pointed moments. I also liked the fact that pop culture illusions are used sparingly and usually to make a humorous point, for example describing one villain as having a voice which sounded like "Darth Vader in a vat of maple syrup" was far more amusing than simply mentioning Star Wars.

One stylistic point I was a little less keen on is while the book is narrated in the first person from Joey's perspective, a couple of times we dipped into the journal of a member of Interworld. These sections however, full of information about Interworld and the Altiverse felt a little too blatant attempt to give readers information, especially considering that we've already got a point of view character who will need to learn this information as time progresses. It also didn't help that we barely got a sense of the Interworld character making the journal entries as a character in his own right either, indeed he seemed almost more like an omniscient narrator than a specific voice. Then again, these sections are comparatively few, and since they also continue exploring the wonderfully vibrant universe of the book they didn't feel too distracting.

If the book has a serious flaw, it is in pacing and characters. I've noticed before in several other works that Gaiman often substitutes concepts for actual characters, and once you've taken away the fact that someone is a living star or a unicorn, there isn't much left to them, and again this is true here.

It is fairly clear that Reaves and Gaiman worked hard to make an ordinary teenaged boy as a protagonist, something they succeeded at perhaps a little too well, since Joey himself, while not actively unpleasant isn't exactly a memorable character despite joining a transdimensional task force. What we learn of Joey, that he has a crush from afar on a classmate, that he has a rivalry with his younger brother and sister, that he generally wants to do the right thing and that he gets lost easily really doesn't give us much to relate to. It is not until very late into the novel that Joey's parents and siblings even appear in standard view rather than flashbacks or asides, which does not help us relate quite as well to potentially poignant moments with them such as Joey stumbling into a reality where he had previously drowned.

This focus on external details and what characters do rather than who they are does not just occur with Joey but also with his Interworld team mates, who generally are only recognizable by the idea behind them, eg, the girl with wings, the strong man, the cyborg etc, and how Joey actually relates to any of them other than simply as their team leader isn't really something we get much detail on.

This is due to the most serious problem of the book, its pacing. Everything moves at breakneck speed, and though not actually an action fest, I often felt that the authors weren't really interested in having any scenes that didn't introduce some weird new sight or frightening occurrence. This is why though the authors attempt to introduce some conflicts and relations between characters they are no sooner stated as solved, for example only after a time lapse description of Joey being treated as an outcast by his fellow Interworld members is the conflict immediately resolved by a less than thirty second conversation, making the whole idea of the conflict feel rather hollow. 

This side lining of character is a shame, since the authors do attempt some rather interesting character changes with the plot that should by rights have been more poignant than they were, such as Joey's actual choice to join the Interworld agency, despite a comparatively happy life in the real world rather than having him be forced to, or his need to come to terms with exactly how dangerous being a part of Interworld is. Even for a young adult novel, at slightly over five hours Interworld is fairly short, thus the too rapid characterization is something for which there is no excuse.

That being said, fast as the pacing is in terms of character, I was pleasantly surprised just how well written and well plotted the book's action sequences are, especially considering that even though Joey is said to have an unusually high aptitude for Walking between worlds he has no special powers himself, and so his great escapes tend to happen due to a combination of quick thinking and luck which is far more satisfying reading than sudden bursts of random powerfulness.

The book ends as expected with a great big, well plotted and paced climax not unlike the destruction of the Deathstar. However being the start of the trilogy this is of course only a temporary reprieve and there is no doubt the forces of evil will return. I do hope the next book focuses more on the Binary than the Hex, given that the idea of a series with two potential antagonistic evil empires is a fascinating one to explore.

Interworld apparently began life as a pitch for an animated tv series, and unfortunately a lot of the conventions of tv still persist. The fast pace, rather blatant series setup and slightly cursory characterization. That being said, the ideas, landscapes and shear scope of the book are an absolute treat, a rolocking adventure across space and time and through the cracks between.

If you’re looking for Gaiman at his most darkly poetic, this probably isn't the book for you. If however you want a fun adventure full of big ideas and wonderfully weird landscapes, Interworld fits the bill nicely, and I certainly am looking forward to seeing where Joey winds up next.

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Interworld

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