Tim Richard’s Mind the Gap is a novel that tries to follow a long tradition of speculative fiction and its engagement with alternate cities, places similar to the real world warped through magic and dreams. Taking its cues from books like Neil Gaiman’s Neverwhere, Mind the Gap tells the story of Darius Ibrahim, an English Egyptian with teleportation abilities linked to underground train networks. Accidentally thrown all over Earth and its adjacent mystical counterpart Terra, Darius discovers himself to be the Chosen one at the centre of an ancient prophecy. He also discovers an Australian love interest in Vivien Henderson, a psychology student and coffee stand worker.
Mind the Gap is a slow book to start. The sentences are straightforward and information is explicit. There’s not much to hold a reader’s attention, unless you find clumsy descriptions of familiar places engaging. Melbournians will find the broad stroke likenesses to their city clumsy, cringe-worthy even, especially when Darius finds himself in the chemistry themed bar Croft Institute. Similarly, London feels shafted and Prague is distant, closer to a holiday fantasy than real places containing real dangers. Richards is a travel writer, and it’s clear that he has great scope of all these places, but what effectively captures the sense of a city differs from travel pieces to fiction. It infects the characters, so that they present like flat overviews of people rather than reactive and tangible human beings. Even Darius’s nationality is hard to believe; the close third person narration seems more Australian than anything else. The pacing is jumpy, even life threatening moments seem dull and inconsequential.
Thankfully, this changes as soon as the narrative leaves Earth. By the time most of the action is taking place on Terra, Richards has found a fast pace. The simple sentence style complements the otherworldly space. When Richards’ indulges his imagination, distorting real world cities into unstable mystical lands, the descriptions are vivid. Perhaps, in an attempt to keep the lines between Earth and Terra clear for his reader, Richards has felt the need to make all of his Earth cities accurate. By the time an Earth city (Rome) is reintroduced, Richards manages to keep his imaginative whimsy onboard, maybe because the city is focalised through a character from Terra.
The characters don’t so much develop as they do survive. It’s not exactly an archetypal quest narrative in which the chosen one discovers themselves, but the questions Darius poses about the circumstances and the secrets of his power are answered. Surprisingly, the only real sense of development comes from Vivien, who becomes more fleshed out and self assured as the story continues, shifting from someone accidentally pulled along for the ride to a woman with a sense of agency and purpose.
The mythology behind much of the Terra conflict feels a little underutilised, given the richness of the stories of ancient Egyptian Gods. Instead Richards uses them as a shorthand to cults and the occult, and to a history tided to places and names. Still, Mind the Gap manages to be a reasonably fun read, even tying in some loose ideas about zeitgeistial consciousness.
Mind the Gap is published by HarperCollins. It is available as an eBook from the first of December, 2014. Sale price is $2.99 AUD.