First, a disclaimer. Should I ever read anything by Neil Gaiman that I didn’t like, I wouldn’t mention it here. I don’t think that’s likely to happen, I’m just saying.
This story began in 1995 as a television series pitch by Neil and TV writer Reaves, but was unsuccessful in that venue. I can see why, actually. It’s a complex story that would require mounds of special effects, but the real trick would be casting the main characters. You see, they’re all different versions of the same person.
Joey Harker is an American teenager living in the outskirts of a small city or large town. His problems and concerns are familiar: school, girls, teachers, family, fitting in. A school project gone wrong reveals a problem of a much larger sort: Joey can Walk from his reality into other alternate versions of it where, for instance, he died last year, or where his family has another child in his place, a female version of himself. If that weren’t strange enough, he’s suddenly the target of armed and dangerous hunters from at least two groups, one science-based, one magic-based, and must put his trust in a stranger if he is to escape them.
Before long Joey has made his way to Interworld, a stronghold in the middle of the battle between science and magic for the control of millions of alternate Earths. And the power each group uses comes from the pain and enslavement of Joeys, versions of him, from those worlds. Interworld is manned (and womaned and…well, you’ll find out) by a tough cadre of Joey versions who act in sort of paramilitary teams to save other Joeys and keep either side from winning the war.
As you can see, a complicated idea, but I found it entertaining and interesting, not hard to follow as it develops in the story. One interesting thing is the fact that all the characters in Interworld are alternate Joeys is never spelled out, it just becomes obvious after a while. No big shock of discovery, instead a gradual understanding.
The story has three main parts. In the first, our Joey comes to Interworld, is trained, goes on a mission, and it all goes wrong. In the second part he has his memory wiped and tries to regain his old life…but fails. In the third part he reenters the fray on his own, bent on righting things, and heading straight into mortal peril.
My favorite character in the book is Joey’s sidekick, Hue. Despite being unable to talk, this animated beach-ball creature is surprisingly communicative, resourceful and in the end very human.
There’s a lot of familiar elements here. I’d cite the magical realms drawn by Steve Ditko in his Doctor Strange stories, Robert Heinlein’s “Space Cadet,” Roger Zelazny’s “Nine Princes in Amber,” and perhaps Legion of Super-Heroes stories from the 1970s. There are also enough new elements and plot twists to keep it fresh and entertaining.
With collaborations, it’s always tempting to try to guess who contributed what. Then the writers can snicker when you get it wrong, as I probably will. Joey’s first person narrative, especially in the early chapters, is very American, and more self-aware than most of Neil’s characters, and that seems like Michael’s work to me. Likewise the Interworld training camp. The Walking parts and the Ditkoish realm seem likely to be by Neil. Beyond that, I can’t say.
A fun read, not earth-shakingly original, but by the end I was wishing I could read more, and there are two sequels I will try at some point. Recommended.