I’ve got a young adult novel in the works that may never be published. One of my goals for this book is to make our non-magical world feel more magical. A lot of that has to do with reminding adult readers of the things they take for granted — unexplained things they’ve forgotten to wonder about. The point is that our existing world is magical (or religious, if that’s your bag) but we’ve stopped noticing.
Dejá vu is one example — it’s a part of our world that no one really understands, but we usually don’t dwell on it. In my book I give dejá vu an explanation, and it helps give the protagonist faith.
Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere plays with a similar tactic. There is another world in the sewers under London, and most people don’t know it exists. The characters who live there can visit us in London Above, but they mostly go unnoticed, disguised as dirty street people that us commoners would rather ignore. Gaiman adds a layer to the world we already know; a Pokémon Go enhanced reality onto the mundane world that sparks a bit of magic in ordinary places. I would have appreciated his commentary a little more if I knew London better, but it wasn’t crucial to follow the story.
Gaiman plays with the old idea of a gritty protagonist (Richard) who doesn’t fit in to the 9-5 life. Our hero is pulled into the dangerous world of London Below and immediately wants to return to his old life. But that’s tricky to swallow as a reader, because his old life was clearly so bad. Gaiman makes London Below really bad, so we sympathize with that desire for escape, but that also means a lot of the book is uncomfortable. At least Frodo Baggins is respected by his new Fellowship; Richard isn’t respected or connected to anyone. His closest friend Door seems kind, but she’s so focused on her own crisis that she doesn’t have time to care for Richard. I was glad that Gaiman didn’t force romantic love on their relationship, but their friendship didn’t feel like a safe zone.
But why should a book feel safe? Gaiman does take care of his readers, and most of the good guys make it out all right in the end. Not only that, the world feels comprehensive: Gaiman leaves readers no doubt that every character has a back-story, even if we won’t get to read it. Markets and sub-cultures imply a long history, even if it’s not directly explained. And, most importantly, Neverwhere offers hope that magic exists.