Sixty-One Nails by Mike Shevdon
Sixty-One Nails by Mike Shevdon
Angry Robot, 2009, 524pp.
Back in the mid ’90s I was finishing up my time in grad school and entering into the professional arena. Without having to read lots of dry academic tomes anymore, I turned back to my first love of SF/F literature. It was a good time to re-enter the genre, in no small part because what was at that time going under the rubric of urban fantasy. This was before the paranormal romance subgenre began masquerading as urban fantasy; de Lint, Windling, and most importantly, Gaiman were writing some great stuff, taking the tropes and ideas of ‘standard fair’ fantasy and dropping them in the middle of modern cities — or, in the case of Gaiman’s Neverwhere, under them. This was fresh and exciting, breathing new life into a genre that had become a bit stale and tired.
And then, like all such innovations, urban fantasy itself started to become a bit stale and tired. It’s been years since I have read an urban fantasy novel that grabbed my attention. Luckily, thankfully, quirky new publisher Angry Robot has changed that with Sixty-One Nails, Mike Shevdon’s first volume in “The Courts of the Feyre.”
The book opens with main character Niall Petersen suffering a heart attack on the London Underground, only to be brought back to life by the intervention of Blackbird, a Fey who ‘just happens’ to be there at the moment. It does not take long before Niall learns that he also has a Fey background and is being hunted by two killers from the Fey Seventh Court, the Court of the Untainted.
It turns out, though, that Niall himself might be from the Untainted himself, making things difficult as he and Blackbird set out on an adventure first to find protection for Niall (who has been given the nickname of Rabbit), but eventually to stop the Untainted from breaking through uninhibited to the mundane world.
In some ways, this is about as standard as contemporary fantasy fare gets. A lot of the world-building here is re-used from the hey-day of urban fantasy. We’ve got all the expected fey — the pixies, the trolls, the goblins — living underground or walking in and out of our everyday lives. We’ve got a plot centered around the danger of the fantastic breaking in to our world.
But as I’ve mentioned before, I don’t see this as a detriment to enjoying a book. What’s important is not that all the ideas be new (or old, for that matter). What’s important is how the author uses those ideas in telling his story, and Shevdon does a wonderful job at making this a fun and exciting story at a number of levels.
Shevdon brings in lots of folklore and historical facts and weaves them intricately into the plot so that no one can tell where reality ends and Shevdon’s fictional world begins (that is, until you read the afterword where he explains the historical basis for the sixty-one nails of the title among other important plot elements). He also gives us two enticing lead characters — Rabbit and Blackbird — who develop a relationship as they search for answers while on the run from the Untainted.
The similarities to Neverwhere are here, but they are at the most only superficial. Shevdon shows considerable skill in moving within the tropes of urban fantasy of the ’90s while definitely taking those ideas and making them his own. This is what good writing is about: being both traditional and progressive at the same time.
I already have the sequel, The Road to Bedlam, and have moved it to pretty high up in my queue of books to read.