Fantasy is a malleable genre, with one of the more popular variations in the last several decades being the urban fantasy. Combining the realism of our magic free world with the trappings of high fantasy has proven to be a fascinating juxtaposition. Imagine a seedy mob-run nightclub in a bustling city, serving a clientele of elves and ogres. Goblins operate as drug runners and wizards assist the police with investigative magic. With urban fantasy, the two worlds may be completely combined, or kept separate through shadowy cabals or government organizations. The fantasy elements may also be as high or as low as the author wishes. While The Dresden Files may be one of the more famous examples of low urban fantasy, other authors are rising up to take its place. The Nightjar, by Deborah Hewitt, is one such novel.
The Nightjar follows Alice Wyndham, an office worker in London, as she is thrown into a world much more magical than she originally thought. Shaken from her regular life by a series of increasingly bizarre events, Alive is revealed to be an individual known as an aviarist. Plagued by hallucinations of birds as a child, Alice learns that the birds only she can see are actually real. Nightjars, magical creatures who guard out souls and who only learn their partner at the time of their death. Only aviarists can see and interact with these birds, making them very powerful and sought after. Alice is whisked away into an alternate London known as the Rookery by Crowley a mysterious man apparently attempting to shield Alice from organizations looking to use her powers for their own ends. The novel follows Alice as she learns to use her abilities and learns more about the magical world that has always existed alongside ours.
Alice proves to be a rather reluctant heroine, initially unwilling to accept that she is anything other than a normal human. While she eventually accepts that she is an aviarist, as people keep telling her, she never fully comes to believe she is as powerful as people say. Once she is safe the Rookery, that alternate London, she becomes more proactive about achieving her goals. While Crowley wants her to train and become a powerful aviarist, Alice has other things on her mind. Early in the novel, before Alice fully understands the danger she is in, she is nearly kidnapped by the Beaks, a faction working under the English government to eliminate magic. Her closest friend, Jen, is hit by a car while saving Alice. Told by Crowley that Jen’s nightjar fled when she fell into coma, Alice learns that the only way to save her friend is to recover her soul from the afterlife. Alice’s sole motivation throughout the story is saving Jen, and is willing to go to extraordinary lengths to achieve her goal, despite any obstacles or handicaps in her way.
While the novel is told primarily in the third-person point-of-view of Alice, Crowley could also be considered a main character to the story. Not much is known about him, although secrets are revealed as the story progresses. Tasked with protecting Alice, her does not seem to actually care for beyond keeping her physically safe. Her motivations are as mysterious as his nightjar, which he has found a way to hide from Alice’s perceiving eyes. His desire to protect Alice does not seem to extend to teaching her, and Crowley is revealed to be constantly keeping secrets from her and never explaining events. His ways almost always backfire as Alice continually takes matters into her own hands. Crowley initially comes off as frustrating, to both Alice and the reader. So many conflicts or dangers could be avoided if he would only talk to her and explain. As the novel progresses and we learn more about him, we come to understand his reasons for keeping secrets, even if Alice struggles to forgive him.
Magic in The Nightjar functions a little differently from other fantasy novels. There is no casting of spells or enchantments. Instead, magic is innate to the person, an aspect of their genes passed down through hereditary lines. These heritages take the form of various measures of control over broad elements. Fire, water, metal, nature, and necromancy, among others. Aviarists stand apart as their abilities are both very rare and little understood. This is not an ability which is inherited, appearing as it pleases. People can also inherit multiple abilities depending on their family history, with some acting as more dominant genes. Aside from her aviarist abilities, Alice is shown to also have some control over plants and plant growth, and Crowley can control fire to a tremendous degree. In the Rookery, if a person demonstrates a mastery over their ability, they have the option of pledging to the noble house from which that gene originates. It is the goal of most residents of the Rookery to be accepted into one of these houses.
No novel is without some measure of criticism, however. While The Nightjar is a thoroughly enjoyable novel, there are a few aspects which did not quite hit home. The novel opens with a prologue, a flashback to what is revealed to be the main villain’s background. In this prologue, he discovers that his infant daughter has survived his family’s massacre and displays magical powers. This is an intriguing opening, and hints throughout the novel lead readers to predict the reveal of the baby’s identity in a certain way, a way which ultimately proves more interesting than how the novel actually treats the event. The reveal of who is featured in the prologue is a bit disappointing when it finally happens. Similarly, the ending of The Nightjar unfortunately falters in its execution. The climax seemingly comes out of nowhere, without enough lead up, and the events are poorly explained as they happen. However, a rushed ending can still be enjoyable. Sadly, the resolution to the novel’s climatic event felt unnecessary and a betrayal of the journey we had just travelled with Alice.
While I did not find the ending of the novel to be a satisfying conclusion, The Nightjar is a thoroughly enjoyable novel and absolutely worth the read. The Rookery is a fascinating place, and I want to see more stories following Alice Wyndham. While the novel seems to function as a standalone story based on the conclusion, there is still so much more to see in the world Deborah Hewitt has created.
The NightJar can be found in store, online, or wherever books are sold
Total Read Time: 14 days
Next on the List: Gideon the Ninth, by Tamsyn Muir