Sixty-One Nails: London gets a faerie make-over

Book cover: Sixty-One Nails - Mike ShevdonWhen Niall has a heart attack mid-commute, he is rescued by Blackbird, a little old lady who is demonstrably more than she appears. She introduces him to the Feyre and none-too-gently informs him that he is part-Fey – and consequently on the Untainted’s death list.

Niall must master his talents, dodge his pursuers, help Blackbird stop the barrier keeping the wraithkin at bay from crumbling, and earn the protection of a Feyre Court if he and his daughter are to have any sort of future…

Mr Shevdon chose a difficult market when he plumped for an urban fantasy set in London. It’s a crowded marketplace – from Gaiman’s iconic Neverwhere to excellent romps more recently from Ben Aaronovitch, Charles Stross, Paul Cornell and Daniel O’Malley. And it’s so easy to get faerie wrong, not least because different readers are looking for very different faeries.

Me, I like my Fey dark, non-human and rather scary. The Bright Court should be terrifying and the Dark Court should be nightmarish. For all their other flaws, I like Raymond Feist and Mark Chadbourn for grasping this and running with it.

So Sixty-one Nails had a lot to live up to. It’s clearly done enough to convince publishers Angry Robot to stick with it – there are a clutch of sequels now – and I can see why. London is real (like Neverwhere, a door may not lead where you expect if opened by the right person) and Shevdon embeds his core plot in a fascinating bit of old City ritual, which always plays well. The setting works.

Thankfully, so do the Feyre, suitably ambivalent, with no clear-cut good guys. Here they are split into multiple courts, each broadly aligned with specific talents/legendary creatures. We mostly get to see the banished Seventh Court of the wraithkin, who believe in pure bloodlines, slaughtering halfbreeds and feeding on humankind like cattle. Add psychotic siblings and a penchant for urbane charm and they fit up as a decent dark host. When we do finally glimpse the others, they also check in nicely as having a ruthless streak and their own harsh code of justice.

The protagonist of the tale is forty-something year old divorcé Niall, whose fey blood awakens during an unfortunate mid-commute heart attack. Rescued by an elderly (looking) and slightly ambivalent Fey’ree, the question is whether he can dodge the wraithkin long enough to find a Court to adopt and protect him. Niall is our ignorant outsider; we learn about the Feyre because he must, and the core plot (save the world to earn your place) and new-boy device work neatly to introduce the reader to the world and magic. There’s plenty of good ingredients in the mix, and the writing is reasonable.

Unfortunately, Niall is as interesting as his day job suggests (middle management for a faceless City corporate) and the novel would have benefited from some of the wit and charm that define Gaiman, Aaronovitch and O’Malley. In their absence, it’s a bit turgid in places, and Niall (in spite of being labelled charming in one scene) is rather dull, lacking a spark to bring him to life. Even when he’s shaping up to be a big damn hero, you can’t imagine wanting to spend a night at the pub with him. Consequently the romance subplot didn’t work for me at all and a number of aspects relating to it left a very bad taste in my mouth.

Overall, I won’t rush out to buy a sequel, although I’d pick one up in a pinch in the hope that increased exposure to the other Courts in subsequent volumes makes it all shine a bit brighter.

*** 1/2