Friday, April 15, 2011

100 Books 22 - Mike Shevdon's SIXTY ONE NAILS



Are you one of those strange souls who secretly has wished that Neal Stephenson would try his hand at urban fantasy? Then brother, have I got the book for you.

Mike Shevdon's Sixty One Nails is steeped in the history and geography of London and its environs in much the same way Stephenson's staggeringly awesome Baroque Cycle (Quicksilver, The Confusion and The System of the World) is; reference is even made in Sixty One Nails to the Trial of the Pyx, a ritual test of Britain's coinage that Stephenson made into a major plot point.

But Sixty One Nails is very much its own fantastic, slightly creepy animal.

I have a problem with fantasy, "urban" or otherwise ("urban" fantasy being fantasy that is set, more or less, in our actual modern world: mages tend to be goth poster boys in black leather trench coats, trolls live in sewers, fairies dance in city parks, witches fly blissfully unimpeded over dense freeway traffic, etc.) and it's largely socio-political. I dislike the genre's reactionary fixation on the glamor of feudalism. It's a rare fantasy tale, whether epic sword-and-sorcery or urban spell-and-cell-phone, that does not in some sense involve kings and queens, lords and ladies, anointed heroes; the "ordinary" characters in these are generally either just figurants filling out the background of scenes and washing master's feet or are the early-instar forms of our hero who either rises from his humble origins to take his place among the elite or was secretly a member of the elite in the first place.

Either way, it's almost always a focus on who someone's parents were that determines how much they matter.

I can understand the romance of this, of course. It's nice to dream of being special and privileged even if one isn't inclined to wish for power over others (or if one doesn't want to admit to having those wishes) -- for of course no one ever fantasizes about being the guy shoveling horse dung out of the royal stables in Rohan or Melnibone. It's escapism par excellance, even if we don't also add in the factors of magic and monsters -- oh, to not only be a prince but also be able to lock doors or light lanterns without getting up from the couch (that we can do that now with remote controls, even The Clapper, is not so romantic, though far cooler in my opinion).

But it's fundamentally undemocratic, and I have not been able to get over that since I first realized it when I got annoyed and threw a copy of some tiresome David Eddings or Terry Brooks tome against the wall as a teenager.

So overall, it takes a damned interesting book to make me willing to tolerate those trappings. And yeah, Sixty One Nails did the job, but just barely.

We're not quite to the point of dealing with actual kings and queens and aristocrats here in Shevdon's world, at least not directly, which helps, but it's borderline. We do come very close to my triggers, for Sixty One Nails concerns an ordinary man with a job and an ex-wife and a daughter and a suburban flat, who suddenly manifests one day as a descendent of the Feyre (basically, fairies), and is just as suddenly embroiled in the kind of tiresome immortal/magical court politics that make all of those White Wolf role-playing games something I would chew off a limb to get out of playing. It's a problem no fantasy author has ever solved well, how to create a race of nearly omnipotent beings and then hamstring them so they can't just take over the world. Here as is so often the case, the hamstringing is done by an intricate and arbitrary set of hierarchies, feudal relationships and rituals that, at bottom, rely as much on analogy as anything, just like the magic does.

What saved the book for me were two things: the characters and the basic idea out of which Sixty One Nails seems to have grown.

Our Arthur Dent-ish protagonist, Niall, quickly renamed Rabbit by the Fey woman who saves his life from a magical assault disguised as a heart attack, is extraordinarily likeable and grounded. Plunged into a weird new world with only this Fey woman's say so that anything is true, he reacts like any of us would: he's worried about his family, and he has trouble adjusting, even when he discovers that he has cool powers he could never have imagined. He is descended partly from the Feyre, who have cross-bred with humans from time to time to restore the hybrid vigor they seem to have lost.

Blackbird, too, is a half-breed, as she reveals soon after she rescues him from his invisible attackers, the Untainted* -- who, she soon realizes, are not just after him as another walking insult to their bloodlines, but because he shall play a pivotal role in renewing a ritual that keeps them from being able to run rampant through the mundane world sucking things dry and turning things to dust and generally just being all-powerful bastards.

And this ritual is where Shevdon is so very, very clever, and is the reason I kept reading despite all of these elements that I really don't like.

The 61 nails in Sixty One Nails are part of a real ceremony conducted annually in London since at least Queen Elizabeth I's reign. It's a fascinating and rather bizarre tradition called quit rents, in which the Queen's Remembrancer receives six horseshoes and 61 nails from the City of London in lieu of a more common rental fee on two pieces of land, The Moors in Shropshire and The Forge in London's Tweezer's Alley. Also in payment, two knives, one dull and one sharp, are presented and tested on a twig of hazel. It's all very solemn and weird and nobody seems to know the story or the reasoning behind it.

So Mike Shevdon, that clever lad, made one up. And yes, it glorifies human royalty and provides another bogus justification for some people being born to be better and more important than others, but it also provides an unusual peg to hang the fantasy quest narrative, and for me, that made all the difference -- that and one other thing.

Mike Shevdon seems a very enjoyably humble writer. The narrative voice he created for Niall/Rabbit is unpretentious, natural, and never gets in the way of the crazy story he's telling. There is no showing off, no pseudo-poetic gobbledygook, no flowery descriptions. Shevdon's prose is elegant and simple and winds up being invisible. We notice the story, not the writer. And that's a rare and pretty fantastic thing.

*The Untainted rings false as a name for the essentially evil beings of the Seventh Court, who do things like spread deadly supernatural mildew called Darkspore, until the reader realizes, about halfway through the book in my case, that the name was not bestowed on them, but one they gave themselves. From their perspective, they are indeed "untainted" because they alone have never cross-bred with humans and refuse ever to do so. Humans are the taint. Oh.

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