Sci fi and fantasy fans are hard to please. In fact, I would dare to say that some of us are filled with a geeky snobbery so strong, that it sometimes cannot be contained in all the forum threads and blog comment boxes the Internet has to offer. It's spilling out into the streets.
Okay, perhaps I’m being a bit dramatic, but I think I speak for many readers when I say that we are getting tired of the same old fantasy story. A young, brave hero (who is almost always male), usually acting out of some sort of need for revenge and having nothing to lose, goes on some kind of adventure, along the way he acquires a powerful item (of magical or scientific origin) and must destroy the bad guys or else the universe will explode. Don’t get me wrong, this plot is a classic, filled with beloved tropes, but what makes it work in for contemporary readers is not groundbreaking plots, but instead authors’ original details and talented writing … which unfortunately seems harder to come by these days.
So I am happy to say that although The Thirteen Hallows by Michael Scott and Colette Freedman follows this familiar plot, the story's vivid, violent death scenes and well-crafted villains enhance the story.
When heroine Sarah Miller rescues an old woman from a mugging, the elderly lady asks her to take a valuable mystical artifact, a sword named Dyrnwyn of Rhydderch, which is one of the Thirteen Hallows, to her nephew Owen. Working together Sarah and Owen strive to protect the ancient hallow, from the sinister forces of the Dark Man and, along the way, save the world as we know it.
You would think that would be the core of the tale, but on top of this familiar, fantastical plot Scott and Freedman layer a suspenseful secondary story — the local police are also hunting Miller, under the belief that she is a sociopath violently offing England’s elderly population. The plot of The Thirteen Hallows basically reads like a twist of The DaVinci Code and any basic epic fantasy, with a dash of Preston and Child thrown in for good measure.
What really makes The Thirteen Hallows stand out are the grisly death scenes and the interesting thugs carrying out the Dark Man’s dirty work. The story is co-authored by Michael Scott, who is known for his popular YA series The Immortal Nicolas Flamel, so I wasn’t expecting high levels of gore. But rest assured, this is definitely a book for adults.
The action in The Thirteen Hallows is gut wrenching. For example, in this scene Sarah uses the sword to decapitate one of the Dark Man’s drones:
The youth staggered to his feet, swaying, eyes rolling back in his head, mouth opening and closing spasmodically, though no sound came out. Sarah jumped to her feet, braced herself, and hit him again, catching him low on the face, shattering his left cheekbone, the force of the blow fracturing his skull. A long ribbon of bright blood spurted, dappling the window and ceiling. Although he was almost unconscious on his feet, animal instinct sent the young man staggering back, blindly waving the scalpel in front of him. Sarah followed, the blood-smeared Broken Sword gripped so tightly that her knuckles hurt, rusted metal biting hard into her hand. She knew what she had to do.
Coupled with other horrific death scenes, such as those of Judith Walker and Sarah Miller’s mother and younger brothers, this story is certainly not for the squeamish reader. (We eventually learn that the sword feeds on blood, literally draining victims to fuel its power, allowing more room in the plot for additional bloody deaths.) Personally, I love well-done gore and horror, so this vivid imagery only added to my enjoyment of the book.
Another element that I appreciate in a good sci fi or fantasy story is an empathetic villain. Yes, they’re the bad guys, but I love the inner conflict that arises when you realize that the villain isn’t all that bad, they’ve just led a tough life and went down a dark path.
This type of character development is usually found more in the villain’s henchmen then in the mastermind. The Thirteen Hallows has some very interesting henchmen, most notably the rough skinhead Skinner. In this passage, we learn about Skinner’s involvement with one of the Dark Man’s other thugs, Robert Elliot, and how Skinner came to be such a menacing villain:
In his time, Skinner had tried both male and female lovers and always seemed to end up with a male. It had taken him a long time to admit that he was gay; it was a difficult and confusing process. So when he discovered that he was attracted to women also, he became hopelessly confused.
But then he met Robert Elliot. Elliot too was attracted to men and women, but Elliot had liked his sex spiced with pain and dominance. So the small man had taken the impressionable sixteen-year-old youth and shaped him, first introducing him to the shadowy world of bondage, then teaching him to enjoy the heightened sensations that pain brought and the infinite pleasure of inflicting paid. And Skinner, in turn, had gone on to teach others, become master to their slave, just as he had been slave to Elliot, the master.
After learning that Skinner's abusive relationship conditioned him to be bad and feed on the pain of others, suddenly, he is much more relatable.
A villain with a colorful background who is nurtured to be bad, and is not inherently evil, makes a good vs. evil plot that much more interesting. Yes, we want the Good Guys to win, but knowing what makes a Bad Guy who he is today, and understanding his motives, makes the fight that much more thrilling.
The Thirteen Hallows may seem like an average contemporary fantasy, and it might even be one for some critical readers, but the exquisite (although bloody) details and detailed character backstories made this an addictive read. I dare say, even suspense and thriller lovers who never thought about picking up a fantasy novel will be able to jump right in to the story's quick paced and gory action.
- Janine Johnston
You can read the *Web Exclusive Review* of this new novel here and pick up your own copy of The Thirteen Hallows in stores now. For more genre coverage be sure to check out RT's Everything Science Fiction and Fantasy Page!