Deborah Hewitt’s debut novel The Nightjar imagines “another London, a magical world hidden behind the bustling modern city we know.” This alternate London is called “the Rookery,” which means a breeding colony of birds. This world draws on the folkloric tradition of the “soul-bird” that carries the souls of the dead to the Underworld.
In Hewitt’s world, nightjars are the species of bird that serve as soul-birds, and their destination is Tuonela, the land of the dead from Finnish mythology. These are odd choices for a couple of reasons. One, although there is an English tradition of referring to nightjars as “lich-fowl,” these insectivorous nightjars are not associated with death nearly as strongly as carrion-eating crows and ravens are. Nightjars are called “goatsuckers,” based on the (false) folkloric belief that they drain nanny goats of their milk. This more common legend is absent from the novel.
This also raises the question of why a story set in London and featuring nightjars invokes Finnish mythology at all. The book makes an effort to handwave this contradiction, but I wasn’t convinced. The concept of the soul-bird is common across cultures, so Hewitt hardly needed to draw upon Finnish folklore to include it. In fact, one of the best soul-bird folktales is the thoroughly-English prophecy that the British monarchy will fall if the ravens roosting in the Tower of London ever leave. Moreover, the Finnish Underworld shares many features with those imagined by cultures throughout the world.
To be clear, I am not criticizing Hewitt’s decision to draw upon Finnish mythology. In fact, I wish more fantasy writers would look beyond Greek and Norse mythology for inspiration. My point is that any folkloric tradition will lose its power when it is divorced from its culture of origin. Aside from the occasional reference to Finnish mythological figures, Finland and its people play no role in this novel about Londoners. Indeed, fantasy literature is already full of alternate Londons, but an alternate Helsinki would be something new (at least in an English-language novel).
With that being said, the characters are well-rounded and driven by compelling motivations, and the story moves at a brisk pace with some surprises thrown in. But I struggled throughout to connect the book’s real-world setting and characters with the mythological elements that form the foundation of this otherwise entertaining fantasy novel.