Thursday, September 19, 2013

Sixty-one Nails


Rating: 3.5 stars
Length: Hefty with detail (519 pages)
Publication: November 2009 in the UK; August 31, 2010 in America from Angry Robot Books
Premise: Niall Petersen is living an altogether ordinary life until he almost dies in a tube station. When he dazedly tells a strange woman who calls herself Blackbird that he's from London and not "the other lands," he wakes up to stream of things he can't quite believe: most importantly, he's descended from the Feyre and has to start running before members of the Seventh Court hunt him down and kill him. He's thrown into a new world only a breath away from the one he's always known, and he may even learn to appreciate it if he can live past next week.
Warnings: magical horror (nothing too graphic)
Recommendation: If you're looking for more magic in London or have a soft spot for Fae types, this may be your thing. It doesn't carry as much tension as it could with the exposition-heavy pacing, but for the most part it's an enjoyable read. 

What makes this one rich and layered:

Sixty-One Nails opens on Niall Petersen just trying to get to work in the morning and dealing with nothing more difficult than dealing with delays and his irritated ex-wife. When he feels himself collapse with a sharp pain in his chest, he thinks he's about to die, but he wakes with a woman standing over him and assuring nearby strangers that there's no need to call an ambulance. Blackbird may be his savior, but she's odd and prickly and seems only too willing to leave him behind if he can't figure out how to keep up with her. Right from the beginning, the imagery is vivid; Shevdon doesn't always draw in the full array of senses, but it's easy to picture each piece of magic or almost understand the bone-deep aversion to iron that the Feyre have. Niall sees wonders right and left, experiences magic he'd never imagined, but it's not all beautiful, and each piece is better because he's never seen it before. Blackbird's power is gorgeous but terrifying, gallowfyre is something out of nightmare, and every piece of it yanks him further away from his old life.

The magic is more than capable of holding its own. Shevdon works with some common elements like the Feyre having an aversion to iron and then sticks with it, discussing how they don't find it at all comfortable to ride in cars because of the metal in the frame. They also, in folkloric tradition, are uncomfortable lying; Niall soon finds himself skirting the truth because direct lies would very nearly hurt, and he can hear the lies of others as sort of a sour background noise. He also works in a larger structure that allows for flexibility in powers and skills across future volumes. The Feyre are loosely divided into seven Courts, each of which trends towards certain physical builds, elemental affinities, and sets of powers. Blackbird, for example, is affiliated with fire and air and has impressive powers with light, fire, heat, flight, and associated principles. Other Feyre sek powers like visions or exceptional physical strength, but they're all generally capable of becoming part of the Courts, which can provide some measure of protection. Six of those Courts have interbred with humans over the years to counteract falling fertility rates: the Seventh Court, the Untainted, considers this disgusting and tries to hunt down half-bloods. The people of the Seventh Court have somewhat more imposing magic, like darkspore (semi-aware fungus that eats whatever living thing it touches) and gallowfyre, which pulls all the light from an area and can burn people to ash in a heartbeat with its cold glow. There are fewer of them thanks to potential inbreeding and isolation, but their magic makes them imposing even when there's only one at a time. 

Other Feyre fear the Seventh Court, but they're fortunately bound away from the human world with ancient rituals. The traditional aspect works quite well; Shevdon drew on the real-life Quit Rent ceremony, which has been performed every year since 1211. The exact origins are more based in tallies and accounting than magic, but the sixty-one nails are real, and something so based in cold iron is the perfect thing to inspire hope and fear in a newly-minted Feyre like Niall. The people involved in keeping the ceremony running are guarding all sorts of secrets in the human world for decades or generations at a time; the way Niall comes across them all in a rush while they marvel at how long it's been since they saw one of the Feyre does wonderful things for the mortal/immortal timeflow problem. Very few books do this well, but Niall and Blackbird slide back and forth beautifully, even when they're not entirely sure what the next step in the plan is. Niall's discovery of his own powers is great, all the more so because Blackbird dislikes those powers to the point of issuing death threats. Before that, though, he has a night and a day on his own, running from the Seventh Court and the human authorities who think he was involved-- it takes a great deal of creativity and desperate imagination, and that ingenuity makes it easy to admire him for playing a game when he's only had a quick glance at the rules.

The red pen:

One of the novel's central conceits works against the fast pacing and tension that Shevdon is building. Early on in the book, Niall exchanges small gifts for a vision that might show him a way to safety. He sees a scattering of images he doesn't understand, from people to places to odd shapes against the sky, and has no idea what to make of them at the time. As the story progresses, he begins to see things from his vision and trust that they mean he's on the right track even if he has no other idea what he's doing. This sort of hazy guidance can work if the person attempting to follow it trusts too much, or becomes careless because things seem foreordained, but Niall just....identifies images and uses them as signposts. He doesn't even try to fight the vision or subvert his own destiny or argue that it's all just a delusion that he can escape-- his simple acceptance is flat, neither giddy longing for   It all works against the otherwise elegant and conniving nature of the Feyre, and having such a predictable vision weakens the book. Sharp-eyed readers (and I say this in as close to modesty as I can) will take one image from the muddle and predict the big romantic relationship that follows later. With this plot-on-rails approach to storytelling, the minor characters need to make the journey about more than the waypoints, but they don't. A rare few minor characters shine, but most of them seem almost like vending machines with legs: Niall inserts persuasion or small gifts, nudges the dialogue button, and exposition and cooperation fall out.

Niall's present is on the generic side, but it manages to fall into over-troped within three pages. He can't pick up his daughter Alex for the weekend when he'd planned, so he calls his ex-wife Katherine to let her know. She nags, accuses him of being careless, and hangs up. When he discovers his powers, he warns his family to run so they won't become targets of the Seventh Court as well. Katherine unbends enough to worry about him, but Alex is the real emotional centerpiece here: she carries Feyre blood as well and is also a cute teenager who loves her daddy. Niall spends large tracts of the book resolving to keep her safe, or just missing her, and this is fine (if a little dull), but then he actually sees her late in the book. They have a touching mini-reunion, and in less than two pages he's thinking that she's high-intensity and wears him down sometimes because she's so full of life. Given that she was just being enthusiastic at seeing him, his near-disdain is off-putting; he says that he loves her, but his actions seem to indicate that he instead tolerates her out of a sense of responsibility. This family presentation reduces them to plot objects to be cared for; Alex is a stencil of daddy's little girl, and Katherine seems to exist as a contrast point to the more (literally) glamorous and independent Blackbird. Some minor characters are all right, most notably the Highsmith family, but most of them trend towards dull, irritating, or both.

Probably the largest itching problem, however,  lies in Blackbird's characterization (and do not get me started about the fact that her true name is Velladore Rainbow Wings when everyone else gets a name that couldn't belong to a My Little Pony). She starts out as promisingly different from many female characters in this genre: she presents as middle-aged, not very attractive, and concerned with whether Niall lives of dies only because saving his life made her partly responsible for what he did with it after that. There's even a truly great early scene in which she holds Niall at knifepoint for something that she doesn't know is beyond his control and threatens to kill him, with every intention of following through. She's not the strongest person in the Courts, but she's old and dangerous and knows her way around. Unfortunately, she soon breaks down from the more informed party in potential partnership of equals into an quivering love interest. Blackbird alternates between being angry about her feelings for Niall and flirting with him; her capricious flips between vulnerability and teasing could have been perfect for her nature, but she ends up as someone who Niall protects and looks to for information sometimes instead of the centuries-old willful being she clearly is. Given that the information she provides at the climax of the book in fact slows the action down and is based largely on fear, it's a sour enough note that looking forward to her character in future books is difficult at best.

The verdict: Sixty-One Nails blends research and folklore and creative magical twists together quite well, and I enjoyed it despite Niall's somewhat flat reactions. The central vision-following and Blackbird's slow descent into a weepy love interest hold it to being good instead of excellent, but odds are good that I'll try whatever series Shevdon starts next.

Prospects: This is the first book in the Courts of the Feyre series; it was followed by The Road to Bedlam and Strangeness and Charm. The fourth and final volume, The Eighth Court, came out in May.

Enjoyed this? Try:
~Any comparisons like the Amazon summary that this is "the smarter, faster brother to Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere" are, not to put too fine a point on it, rubbish. They're good in different ways because Gaiman doesn't deal with the Fae in this way, or really at all, and Niall has power where Richard Mayhew does not. Neverwhere is, however, shorter than this book, covering less physical ground and somehow also taking the time to be philosophical in a way that Sixty-One Nails is not. Marketing being what it is, I shouldn't be too annoyed, but this is a pet peeve: don't bag on your subgenre's reigning classic in an attempt to self-promote. It sounds ridiculous. (Eventually I am also going to pull together all of these weird alternative books about magic in London and talk about the role of setting, but that's neither here nor there.)
~A Madness of Angels hits on a different form of magic, and Matthew Swift isn't learning the ropes the way that Niall is, but both books carry a solid weight of London's tradition.

The original cover (the one at the top is the 2012 re-release):


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