The Nightjar, by Deborah Hewitt, offers an original spin on the “you’re a wizard” genre of fantasy, in which characters are suddenly whisked out of their ordinary lives into a world of magic and danger. Hewitt pulls in Finnish folklore and transplants it to London (for mostly glossed over reasons) for her setting. She also grafts it on to her protagonist, Alice, who is suddenly informed that the birds she sometimes sees are guardians for people’s souls. This seemingly slight gift turns out to be a gamechanger in an ongoing war between a magical community, non-magical assassins, and a death cult.
Alice’s introduction to the magical world involves, essentially, two kidnapping attempts. One comes from a shadowy man, Crowley, who claims to want to keep her safe. The second comes soon after when a more clearly sinister man tries to grab Alice off the street while his accomplice pushes Alice’s best friend in front of a moving car. Crowley is able to help Alice escape to the sanctuary of the Rookery, a magical London made up partly of historical buildings lost to fire, bombing, or development over the centuries. I really wish that we had been given more opportunities to dive into this world’s magic but the plot never really pauses. Instead, Alice puts herself on a quest to save Jen from a coma, keep her parents safe, and find a way to disappear when this is all over. Meanwhile, Crowley clearly has ulterior motives for helping Alice but he so secretive that he ends up fouling his plans more than once when his secrets start to come out.
Alice is the opposite of the kind of protagonist I would be if I found out that magic was real. I’m a watch and wait type. Alice is an ask a few questions and barrel into the unknown sort of girl. To the exasperation of Crowley, Alice never seems to learn to hang fire and make a plan before getting herself into some kind of violent catastrophe that he has to rescue her from. I felt as weary as Crowley must have long before the end of the book; I really wanted to reach in and snatch Alice’s shirt collar more than once to slow her down.
The Nightjar is an overstuffed novel. I felt like the plot had a grip on my hand and was pulling me down a busy street while I wanted to pause and window shop. I wanted more history. I wanted more magic. I didn’t necessarily want the shoe-horned in romance plot or the multiple accidental betrayals. Seriously, there is so much in this book that I wonder if The Nightjar had originally been planned as two or three books. It would have made more sense, I think, to hold off on some of the plots (like the entire death cult and child of death thing) for later entries. Without those extra plots, I think the central narrative, the characters, and the setting would have had a chance to become a fully-realized, multi-dimensional story. On the other hand, if you want fantasy that doesn’t sprawl across so many books, The Nightjar might be a great choice for you.