Tim Lebbon & Christopher Golden, Mind the Gap (Bantam, 2008)

Hidden, magical London is all the rage these days. First there was Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere, then China Mieville's Un Lun Dun. And now there's Mind the Gap, a collaborative effort between American novelist and comics writer Christopher Golden and British horror novelist Tim Lebbon. To be sure, that's fast company for any book to be in, but Mind the Gap manages it more than respectably, and is an enjoyable, engrossing read that delivers plenty of thrills while deftly avoiding the numerous clichés lurking in wait for it.

"Mind the gap" is, of course, the cry in the London Underground reminding people to be careful getting onto or off of trains. It seems appropriate, considering how much of the novel takes place in tube stations and the vast tunnel network beyond them. But there's another meaning here, a warning to be aware of the distance between the sunlit, everyday world of workaday folk and the hidden world of teenaged thieves and howling city ghosts that dwell beneath the streets. It is that difference that the novel continually circles around, daring its protagonist Jazz to leap back and forth before revealing that maybe the gap might not be there after all.

The book is Jazz' story, starting with her return home from school to find her somewhat mysterious mother murdered and her very mysterious "Uncles" running amuck in her house and looking for her. Sensibly, she flees and winds up in the world of the Underground, off the maps and off the grid, and falls in with the Fagin-esque Harry as a result. Harry and his merry band of underaged thieves take her in, but the mystery of her mother's murder isn't put aside so easily, as the Uncles come looking for Jazz even in the deepest tunnels, and it turns out that the beneficent Harry has perhaps more of a link to them than he originally let on.

And, just to complicate matters, there's a handsome thief, a generations-old conspiracy, a cute boy who's a little too grown up for his own good, and, swirling all around them, the howling memories of London itself, enough to drive the unwary mad.

That's the plot, anyway. The real story is what Jazz chooses to do, as the secrets she uncovers lead her back and forth between worlds. There's temptation in each place, and a life to be made there, but there's also the call of discovering why, and it's that urge to know that keeps Jazz, and the book, moving forward toward an unexpected but deeply satisfying conclusion.

Mind the Gap is not a gentle book, and it is not necessarily kind to the innocent. At the same time, it shies knowingly away from starry-eyed romanticism, and from the neat happily-ever-ending one might expect of this sort of through-the-looking-glass tale. That being said, the heart of the book beats true all the way to the end, and Jazz herself could find no other ending and remain true to herself.

So hop on board. Enjoy the read, and the ride. And of course, mind the gap.

[Richard Dansky]