(2019) Deborah Hewitt, Pan, £7.99, pbk, 463pp, ISBN 978-1-509-89646-2
Buckle up for a weighty tome by first time novelist Deborah Hewitt with her alternative London novel The Nightjar seasoned by a healthy sprinkling of Finnish mythology, which makes her book different from other similar novels. While not ten a penny, London is a favourite setting for writers looking for an alternative city, ranging from supernatural crime thrillers to an alternative, hidden city, sometimes underground. Literary views of the city include The Ballad of Peckham Rye by Muriel Spark, and Concrete Island by J. G. Ballard, and more recently V. E. Schwab’s Shades of Magic series features several different Londons, but I suppose the alternative London novel that everyone must be measured against is Neil Gaiman’s debut novel Neverwhere, which is finally getting a sequel called Seven Sisters.
Hewitt’s novel can be compared to Gaiman’s because of the alternative setting, but perhaps there is a link to Gaiman’s work in Hewitt’s; given that we have a mysterious figure called Crowley, the name of a well-known Gaiman (and Pratchett) character; and the world that Hewitt creates – The Rookery-More to the point, Neverwhere and The Nightjar share leading characters with slightly similar backgrounds in that their everyday, “normal” lives are pretty ghastly, so an escape into alternative world, albeit full of danger and surprises, is a welcome relief from the lives they left behind.
The leading character in The Nightjar is Alice Wyndham who has a fear of birds and been plagued with nightmarish visions of them all her life, but her best friend Jen helps her to cope with her fear. Alice goes on with her life not realising that she is an aviarist until the day Jen has an accident which puts her in a coma and Alice learns that the birds she is seeing are called nightjars which guard human souls. Jen’s nightjar has flown to Death’s Black Menagerie. The only way Alice can save her is to travel to the Rookery, an alternative city within London in the company of the mysterious Crowley, who isn’t all he seems, and possibly isn’t to be trusted. But what else can she do if she is to save the life of her friend, even though there are some who do not want to see an outsider aviarist in their midst, and would have no qualms in killing her.
Despite comparing it to Gaiman’s novel, The Nightjar really reminded me a lot of The Relic Guild trilogy by Edward Cox, mainly due to the detailed world-building. Here, Hewitt has given us tantalising glimpses of several aspects of The Rookery, including other forms of magic and several institutions which I’m sure we’ll see more than a glimpse of in future books in the series. World-building aside, what perhaps stands out more is Hewitt’s knack of ramping up the action as Jen is running out of time to save the life of her friend. However, it does become a bit frantic towards the end, and while this novel is well over 400 pages, perhaps, it could have benefitted by being taken over the five hundred page mark, certainly some characters are not as well drawn as others. There is also a hint of romance which seemed a tad underdeveloped, but might ignite in the sequel. However, in her first book, Hewitt demonstrates that she certainly can write, and this is great debut, so as someone almost said in a Star Wars movie once, I’ll watch her career with interest.
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