REVIEW: Mythological foundations can’t hold up ‘The Nightjar’


Reviewed by:
Rating:
2.5
On April 23, 2020
Last modified:April 23, 2020

Summary:

Deborah Hewitt’s debut novel 'The Nightjar' imagines “another London, a magical world hidden behind the bustling modern city we know.” This world draws on the folkloric tradition of the “soul-bird” that carries the souls of the dead to the Underworld. 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.

Cover design by Matthew Garrett/Tor

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.

Nightjar, photo by Dûrzan Cîrano

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.

The Swan of Tuonela (Ben Garrison, 2011) depicts the Finnish hero Lemminkäinen and the magical swan that swims around the island of the dead

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).

Author Deborah Hewitt (via: https://www.goodreads.com/thevimes)

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.

Deborah Hewitt’s debut novel 'The Nightjar' imagines “another London, a magical world hidden behind the bustling modern city we know.” This world draws on the folkloric tradition of the “soul-bird” that carries the souls of the dead to the Underworld. 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.
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About Matt Hlinak

Matt Hlinak
Matt Hlinak is an administrator at Dominican University, just outside of Chicago. He teaches courses in English and legal studies. His short stories have appeared in 'Sudden Flash Youth' (Persea Books 2011) and several literary magazines. 'DoG' (2012) is his debut novel.