Tuesday, 13 July 2010

Sixty-One Nails

Mike Shevdon
Angry Robot (Angryrobotbooks.com)

However you spell them, there are essentially two types of fairy. There are the fey, the fair folk, the seelie or sidhe: unpredictable, alien things from the nastier side of mythology, counting goblins and malevolent tricksters among their number. Then there are the fairy fairies: creatures with butterfly wings and names likes Peaseblossom (I'm looking at you, Bill Shakespeare), flighty and sweet-natured and with the edge taken off their whimsy. If their games cause problems for humankind, it's usually through no real ill-will but simply down to misunderstanding.

Sixty-One Nails so desperately wants its 'feyre' to belong to the former category, but the novel just doesn't have the stomach for it. To start, it persists in referring to its inhabitants by that absurd mangling of a word for which there are already a dozen more legitimate derivations, an idiot neologism I can't help but think of as being pronounced 'fair'. Far more importantly than my phonetic pedantry, Shevdon's fairies simply lack any real sense of menace, of alien other-hood; they're humans dressed up in funny costumes, and their customs and culture are a predictably derivative mix of stock mythological and tribal ingredients.

Neil Gaiman's Neverwhere, which is mentioned no fewer than three times on the cover of Sixty-One Nails and which this novel apes with an unwholesome desperation, builds a surreal and symbolically rich otherworld beneath London, pieced together from the scraps and discarded metaphors of the society it hides behind. Sixty-One Nails, on the other hand, seems on occasion to forget which city it's based in; this could be New York, or Paris, or any other major western metropolis, for all the attention which is paid to evoking an authentic sense of place. Shevdon has done his research when it comes to the novel's interpretation of history, and the logic behind the titular ritual binding human and 'feyre' worlds together is cleverly constructed, but much of the time it seems like the London within these pages could actually be a small rural settlement or commuter town rather than a bustling capital teeming with countless millions of souls (and at least twice that many actual people, to plagiarise Terry Pratchett). The characters drift from scene to scene and location to location with no real sense of the intervening space, or the practicalities of city life. At one point the hero escapes from police pursuit -- including helicopter, no less -- by getting a taxi to Heathrow. His journey is smooth, unbarred by traffic, and the police are swiftly left far behind.

If this is London, I wish I lived there.

The problem, I think, is that Shevdon tries too hard to emphasise the other-ness of the new world his hero Niall has fallen into. Police, taxis, and the ticket barriers on the tube are all hazards of the real world, the real London; Niall is of the (through gritted teeth) 'feyre' now, and such mundane concerns are no longer really his concern. What Shevdon seems to have overlooked is that by consigning the banality of the everyday to the novel's outskirts, he hasn't strengthened the mystical setting he's trying to evoke but has rather reduced it. Magic seems all the more magical in a world of inconvenient traffic jams and stubborn security guards; being able to hand-wave your way past all worldly barriers somehow cheapens the experience.

I suppose having rambled and ranted for four paragraphs already, it'd be good form to provide some kind of plot synopsis so you can get some sense of the narrative geography I'm complaining about. Niall Petersen is a middle-aged businessman, divorced, one child, hurrying to navigate the labyrinth of the London tube in order to get to work, when he unfortunately catches a heart attack and dies. When he wakes up, and wake he must or this would be a very short novel and an even shorter review, a funny old woman is kneeling over him and tells him he has finally come into his birthright -- he is of the 'feyre' (sigh), six Courts of halfbreed fairies who live in the hidden spaces of London and fear the return of the 'Untainted' Seventh Court, who refused to dilute their purity with the blood of humanity and were sealed away from the world to keep them from devouring it in a fir of pique and racial bigotry. Occasionally one of the Untainted slips through the barrier, and attempts to possess a living body in order to hunt down its impure cousins. That wasn't just a heart attack, Niall's saviour tells him, and it has the scent of him now...

Of course there's more at stake than Niall's mere survival, and of course he'll become embroiled in a desperate race to keep the barrier from falling and the world from being eaten by hungry fairies, and of course Niall will discover his nifty magical powers during the course of his quest. Not just regular magic, either; apparently finding out you're one of the fair folk isn't fantastical enough, and Niall's bloodline is unique this side of the barrier, giving him powers no other 'feyre' possesses. This is verging uncomfortably close to the sort of authorial-insertion wish fulfillment which gives fantasy fiction a bad name -- all there need be now is a gratuitous sex scene with an impossibly attractive fairy woman who seems implausibly attracted to a man who seems to possess all the wit and personality of a baked potato...

Blackbird, the shape-changing, not-necessarily-as-old-as-she-looks lady who rescued Niall from possession, is about as close as Sixty-One Nails comes to effective characterisation. While she does bear the brunt of providing most of the expository dialogue to her hapless companion, and her motivation for continuing to accompany him can be most readily summed up as 'it says so in the script', she nonetheless manages on occasion to overcome these weighty impediments and show a glimpse of personality. On those rare occasions she isn't fulfilling vital narrative duties, a flash of something surprisingly complex shows through. It's just a shame Shevdon didn't let her follow these flashes of individuality through to their logical conclusion, but instead rides iron-shod over the top of them whenever he needs the plot to move along a little bit.
Aside from Blackbird, it's all but deserted on planet personality. Niall himself is a blank slate, all the better for readers to self-insert atop; he shows a streak of gutlessness near the beginning of the novel which is almost admirable in a protagonist, but before too long he's blasting monsters with gay abandon (and gallowfyre, apparently). As for the supporting characters, they're far between and few in number, with a tendency to have their narrative function branded on their forehead in fox-fire neon. The female villain has a pantomime malevolence to her, as if compensating for the lack of a mustache to twirl, while her brother is all Victorian formality and about as threatening as an embroidered pocket-square.

It's mostly down to him that the novel's climatic face-off is so appallingly free of any kind of suspense. As when watching a James Bond film, it's a safe assumption when reading this kind of book that the protagonist can overcome any challenge where he isn't actively opposed by the primary villain; with that trope in mind, a formal trial by water where all other parties are honour-bound not to interfere (and, critically, are the sort which keep their word) is as close to a foregone conclusion as it's possible to get.

More emotionally engaging than the novel's main narrative is its romantic sub-plot, if only due to the aforementioned ease of self-insertion in place of Captain Cardboard and the relative attractiveness of the only character in the book with more than a single dimension. Which is where Sixty-One Nails' rather uncomfortable sexual politics kicks in. Blackbird's overwhelming dominance in the relationship might seem a victory for feminism, in a genre with a reputation for sexual inequality which was earned in post-war pulp and unfairly maintained despite the last twenty years'-worth of feminist and post-feminist writers strewing their fantasy with strong female characters. But the 'feyre' are dying out, their numbers dwindling. A child is a rare thing, and Niall? He has a daughter by his ex-wife, thereby proving himself fertile. Suddenly Blackbird's attraction to the lumpen fool starts to make makes an unpleasant kind of sense, given that she's several hundred years old and has never had a child of her own. In the morning after there's a long and painfully conservative conversation about the possibility that Blackbird is now pregnant, and what do you know...?

What I know is that the pregnancy -- all 24 hours of it -- is enough to render Blackbird weak and ineffectual as it saps her magic powers. This assertion of inherent female weakness, and of the concept that the primary drive of even the strongest woman is procreation, sits uneasily on the page. Perhaps I'm judging Sixty-One Nails unfairly -- despite her incapacity Blackbird does find the strength to strike out at a key moment, again saving Niall's life -- but it's a reading reinforced by the presentation of the female villain as yet another unstable, unreliable madwoman who ought to be kept in the attic. And in the aftermath of the novel's climax, the villain's brother -- the Victorian gentleman with the overdeveloped sense of propriety -- resembles no one so much as Jane Eyre's Richard Mason.

Even leaving the possibility of sexual conservatism aside, Sixty-One Nails has the usual problems you might expect from a debut novel. Its pacing is glacial, and it struggles to maintain any real sense of urgency or menace even in those scenes you might expect to be urgent slash menacing. A firmer hand on the editorial rudder could have trimmed some of the fat from a novel spilling over its five-hundred page waistband; there are scenes which seem to serve no purpose besides letting you know time has passed, which could have easily have been summed up by a single line of summary prose. 'Show don't tell' might be the party line first-time novelists do their best to toe, but as with all things it's a case of exercising moderation. Judicial summary has its place, and its place is vacant in Sixty-One Nails.

This review was originally written for SFcrowsnest.com