Sixty-One Nails Mike Shevdon Angry Robot 2009
"There are more things in heaven and earth than are dreamed of in your philosophy."
While it was Shakespeare who penned that line, it seems to have been adopted as an unofficial motto by the world of urban fantasy authors. Secret worlds lurking in the shadows, another realm below our own, grotesque visages behind human masks, these are all familiar themes. And for good reason too, nothing is more conducive to some good, old-fashioned daydreaming than the possibility of pulling back the veil of the mundane to reveal unspeakable beauty or mortal danger. Mike Shevdon has taken this idea to heart in Sixty-One Nails, an urban fantasy adventure par excellence which challenges the viewer to imagine what happens when one's reality is shattered. Do you become coward or hero, observer or actor?
Sixty-One Nails follows the misadventures of Niall Petersen, an anonymous, divorced London businessman living a typically dreary and monotonous existence. His career more or less erases any possibility of a social life while his teenage daughter is used as an emotional ping-pong ball between him and his estranged ex-wife. All this changes during one trip on the subway. While waiting for a train, Niall finds himself suddenly on the floor, clasping his chest in agony and watching the world fade to blackness. Fearing an early, heart-induced end to his life suddenly an old woman leaps into view, resuscitating him and whispering some cryptic messages before disappearing. After somehow tracking her down his life is thrown into disarray. The woman, known only as Blackbird, shows him a vision of being hunted and appropriately christens him Rabbit. So far, so weird.
Before he knows it Niall has seen her transform into a bewitching 20-year old, been greeted by sewer dwelling trolls and found himself targeted for assassination by a mysterious being spreading death in the form of unstoppable mildew. After barely surviving his first night he teams up once more with Blackbird, resigned to tackle whatever is happening head-on before any harm can befall himself or, more importantly, his ex and daughter. With Rabbit as a guide he is inducted to the world of the Feyre, a world of which he has always unknowingly been a part. Magical beings have lived alongside humanity for many years in an unsteady alliance against rogue Feyre which detest mere mortals and would stop at nothing to claim the world for their own. This may soon come to pass, with events leading inexorably to an ancient royal ceremony gone awry, leading to a weakening of the barrier between our reality and that of the The Untainted.
You can probably guess the rest. It's up to hapless magical newbie Rabbit to take on immeasurably powerful foes and save both realms from certain destruction. In this respect Mike Shevdon wins no points for originality with Sixty-One Nails. As always though, the devil's in the details. There are more than enough unique touches throughout the story to keep you firmly planted in your seat and reaching for more coffee. The system of magic means each Feyre must discover their own branch of power and develop it as best they can. The division of the Feyre courts and their history leaves plenty scope for political intrigue in coming books. The queasiness-inducing relationship between Rabbit and the initially ancient Blackbird is extremely (if unintentionally) entertaining. Perhaps most accomplished of all is the ceremony at the heart of the book, utilising the titular nails. On reaching the book's end I was delighted to find it to be based on an actual ceremony and that Shevdon had provided a detailed account of the real deal.
Unfortunately, Shevdon often relies too heavily on imagination and not enough on reality. Throughout the book I constantly felt that Niall's character was underdeveloped and somewhat cardboard. His reaction to the whole situation (being half-magical and being hounded by the epitome of evil) seemed to lack anything resembling genuine surprise, fear or exhilaration. Indeed he seemed instead to be wearily resigned to his fate, with a cartoonish attitude of "End of the world eh? Oh well, let's see what happens." If as much time had been spent fleshing out Niall's psyche as was the case with Blackbird's it would have left the novel in a far better state.
That aside, if you can live with a slightly one-dimensional hero then there's a lot to recommend Sixty-One Nails. A mentioned it checks all the boxes required of urban fantasy and then goes a couple of steps further. Given the subject matter is has inevitably received countless comparisons to Neil Gaiman in general and Neverwhere in particular but these references are the result of lazy reviewing more than anything else. Mike Shevdon certainly has his own unique voice and while it may have its flaws it's still going to be worth following the Courts Of The Feyre series.