As I realised earlier, when discussing this book with a friend, I believe it worthy of the title of “second best attempt at a book about fairies I’ve read as an adult”. It doesn’t sound like much, but when you think about quite how much of fantasy is “a book about fairies” and what pretty excellent fiction is in that category, it is actually a pretty good compliment. The friend in question, incidentally, thought I meant after Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell by Susanna Clarke. I’m aware that that is well regarded as a fantasy book, and is indeed a book about fairies, but it was never really my cup of tea. I didn’t take to some aspect or other of it, so it sits a ways further down the list. No, the best book about fairies I’ve read as an adult (not the same as the best adult’s book about fairies… I make no attempt to suggest I have stopped reading children’s books), as far as I can think of is The War of the Flowers by Tad Williams. It has certainly stood up to multiple reads and the scrutiny of a very bored teenager willing to pick holes all over the place. It occupies the top position because of the way it both holds on to the traditions of folklore fairies (or however pretentiously you wish to spell them) and innovates, and how it manages to do the two neatly and consistently and to make it all feel right and good.
I don’t think Sixty-One Nails quite reaches that. Shevdon comes close, but a few little niggling details do irk along the way of the story. Especially names. It is something of a failing of mine that I tend to set a lot of store by how good an author is at creating believable and good names for his characters/concepts/whatever. Williams has the knack; Shevdon doesn’t always quite make it. Possibly most of this is me being annoyed at the spelling “Feyre”. I know everyone who writes this sort of fantasy has to have a go at spelling it their way, but one would have thought they’d run out of new, exciting and irritatingly pretentious ways to arrange the letters by now. Apparently not. But this is a little thing. In the broader picture, he does very well. He incorporates enough real fairy mythology to soothe the fussy and the pedantic (hello, that’d be me) but isn’t constrained by it. His descriptions of fairies tend to the clichéd, but this is probably because there are only so many ways you can make your characters interestingly pointy, and he does innovate a little with Kareesh, and elsewhere. But the plot and the setting and the intriguing historical link are all plenty original enough.
His writing style is also very pleasant. It’s not particularly artful or graceful, so you do not get dragged away from the plot to realise that that really is an exciting metaphor or what have you, but nor does it hold you back from enjoying the story by being painful or simplistic or crude (Hunger Games, I’m looking at you here). It flows well, it fits the tone of the book, and the fanciful turns it occasionally wanders down match the language used by the fairies (it’s the traditional spelling, I can’t be bothered keeping up with how each individual author chooses to make it up) and the fact that it /is/ a book about fairies, so it all works. Gritty modern realism wouldn’t fit in with Solandre of the Seventh Court or whoever, really.
His characters too, are pleasingly done. The main character’s devotion as a father (really not a spoiler; it gets mentioned within about two pages) comes across well, even to someone who’s female, 22 and very much not a parent, and is not only believable but almost infectious. Almost. He’s good, but very little would induce me to /actually/ care about fourteen year olds. I won’t delve much into the supporting cast as thar be dragons (or rather, spoilers a-plenty) but Niall, the protagonist, is very much everything you want out of the hero of a fairy book. He is actually rather reminiscent of Theo (main character in The War of the Flowers) but a bit more grown up and somewhat less American. He has the necessary ignorance of how the fairy world works, both for the plot and for allowing us to find things out in an unobtrusive way, without getting whiny, repetitive or just plain stupid, and he buys into the whole thing at an acceptable pace. Possibly the only criticism is that his ignorance is not solved as quickly as the reader might like by Blackbird (who is the source of a lot of the early information about fairies) who has a tendency to be a bit cryptic and tight-lipped. But the pace does pick up, and we find out all the things we need to know eventually.
It feels like a long book (and reading on Kindle, I had no real way of knowing how long it actually was without going on Amazon to check… 420 pages if you’re interested), even if it’s not. It has a lingering quality. I found myself going over it much more slowly than I do most books, taking everything in and really enjoying it. It’s simultaneously wonderful and frustrating, me being an impatient soul. It is not something to skim over quickly. Probably a trait for the better, all things considered.
I can’t say that I really fell in love with any of the characters, the way one does with a favourite book. That’s probably why it could never be top of my list of fairy books (so many in The War of the Flowers demand love, it’s amazing), but I like them enough to care what happens to them, and to understand how they work and interact, even if some of the characters get a little more alien as the plot progresses and we sink further into fairy and its ways. The coming of age thread of Niall’s is well done, and nice for the fact that he is a middle-aged man, and yet still is very much at a coming of age. One cannot help but like him, even if one doesn’t love him, and he comes across as very real, very human and broadly good in the way most people probably are without being completely innocuous.
In all, it is a very competent book, and an enjoyable one. It is not /great/. It is not a book to put down and immediately start enthusing about to friends. But when you do put it down, you feel satisfied, as though it has achieved its purpose. And that’s good. Certainly my previous book, Johannes Cabal the Necromancer, while leaving me euphoric and desperate to share, left some niggling irritations and sadnesses and dissatsifactions behind when it was gone. But Sixty-One Nails has a good sense of completeness. I was not entirely surprised to learn that there are sequels (two) but I’m not certain they were needed. I will read them, I have no doubt, as this is certainly one of the better books I’ve read in a while. I suspect I will enjoy them too. I doubt they will spoil this book, as some sequels do. But I’m in no hurry to break the satisfaction I have with the first book by getting to its siblings, so I’ll probably read them in a few weeks, when I’ve cleared my current book To Do List.
I sound a little apathetic about this book, but I’m very much not. The sense of completion it gives is a very important aspect of it, and can be a rare thing. It should be treasured. I personally like to have a character I adore to make a book complete, and this lacks it, but in all other respects it is a book of excellent qualities. I will happily recommend it to friends on the strength of its writing, plot and world-building, and will enthuse about it should it come up in conversation. It deals with a fairly well-covered part of fantasy and manages not to be a cliché, which is some skill. I like it very much indeed. But I don’t quite love it. Almost, but not quite.