The Thirteenth Tower

Oooh, fantasy!  I say that a lot.  It's abso-tively posi-lutley one of my favorite genres to booktalk as a teen librarian.  I'm willing to try lots of different types of fantasy, as well (high, urban, dystopian, whatever), so I put in a request for an ARC of The Thirteenth Tower by Sara Snyder on Netgalley.

Much as I said in my review of The Murder Complex, some books need to marinate.  I now feel as though I need to revise my rating of TMC, because while that one may have just needed some tweaking, The Thirteenth Tower needed a good three day brining, much like a Thanksgiving turkey.

It's not an awful book.  It just needs more editing, more development, and more detail.  In short, just plain more.

Snyder's fantasy world is interesting in that the magical aspect (referred to as the Art) is more of a scientific practice than anything arcane.  This treatment of something that is usually esoteric reminded me of the magic using geometry and mathematics in Brandon Sanderson's The Rithmatist.  The magisters (magic users) have towers all over the land where they do their studies and, presumably, also kill puppies and such.  They're regarded with deep suspicion by the inhabitants of this country because the magisters came from the south, bringing their beliefs with them and imposing them on the populace.  This is a great jumping-off point for a discussion of imperialism or religious conversion or what have you, but it's not fully explored.  Let's get to the story, shall we?

Emelyn is a drudge in the Mansell househould.  Abandoned as a child, she's considered a pariah by most people, since in Fallow, to be abandoned means that you cannot be loved.  "Love could never be anything more than an unattainable idea, a fanciful feeling of which the likes of her would never know." (more on this later, promise)  The dictatorial Miss Cook raised Emelyn, and the young lady longs for a family to say they love her.  But she's a realist, too--so every morning, she gets up, stirs the fire, and squares her shoulders for another day of hard work.  Only, this day is different.  It's the Harvest Festival, and if she gets all the chores done in time, she might slip off to attend the dancing, music, and feasting.  But things go very wrong, very quickly.

In a nice bit of foreshadowing (as you can tell, it's heavy foreshadowing), Emelyn meets a strange girl while running a household errand.  "The girl had long, dark  hair and wore a dress of rough leather with colorful little beads that clicked when she moved ... Her eyes were grey like the clouds overhead, much like Emelyn's own.  They looked striking against her dun-colored skin.  Emelyn had thought her own skin dark, but now felt fair by comparison."  I am a bit confused by the use of the word "dun" to describe the girl.  It's a a word generally used as coloring for horses (I was a MAJOR horse fanatic as a kid, and dun was not my favorite coloring.  I preferred chestnut.  Anyway.) and not for people.  Merriam-Webster defines dun as a color as "a nearly neutral slightly brownish dark grey."  That is the most equivocal "definition" I may have ever encountered, but no matter.  I do not think that people, in general, have dark grey skin.  They may have cool-toned skin, but not grey.  Hmm.

Moving on, Emelyn returns to the house and does her chores, and as Harvest Festival approaches, fears she won't be able to go.  But suddenly everyone in the village begins acting very, very strangely.  Citizens who are normally taciturn or even downright grumpy are laughing and dancing at the festival.  A Pied-Piper-esque figure lures the townspeople into revelries.  At the town square, "The men were clad in well-tailored black waistcoats, the silvery chains of pocket watches glinting in the firelight.  Below the waist the men were unclothed, their erect [note: it is extremely hard for me to type this without cringing] penises protruding from thatches of thick, dark hair."  I suppose this whole revelry scene reflects debauchery even in the clothing of the fae participants (I'm assuming the men and women described in this scene are fae), but whoa.  That came out of left field.  In fact, I think that little paragraph is an escapee from a 50 Shades wannabe a few books over.

Normally, descriptions of nudity feel most natural for me in, say, a police thriller, where detectives are looking at bodies and so forth.  My particular issue with this strange description is that it doesn't fit with the tone of the rest of the story.  No one even kisses any one else in this story--that's how unromantic it is.  So it's not like The Thirteenth Tower is a fantasy brimming with sexytimes.  No.  Plus, the reaction of Emelyn, the main character, isn't believable.  She gasps and runs away, but promptly forgets about it.  When the magisters she ends up traveling with assure her that her friends will be okay, she believes them completely.  Lady: You just saw people driven out of their minds and committing acts with strange people who eschew pants!  You need to be more concerned about this!  I need to shake you!

Actually, Emelyn's entire course of action can be summed up as complete passivity.  As she runs through the woods and is attacked by small, lecherous men, she's saved by a complete stranger.  What does she do?  Trust him!  Argh!  Anyway, his name is Callum, and as they run, they encounter two other strangers who are none other than the highly jerktastic Grand Magister Percival and his slightly less jerktastic apprentice Aldren.  They tell Emelyn to come with them because they know her parents.  What do you think she does?  If you answered, "Run the other way screaming," you would have been sane, but wrong.  She goes with them, even though Callum warns her that magisters are dangerous and full of schemes.   But he comes along too.

The rest of the story is a series of scenes where they traverse the landscape, a revelation is made, Emelyn totally doesn't get it, and they keep going.  We have a classic example of the Chosen One syndrome here, complete with the character's disbelief in her abilities.  But it's more than that.  There is a scene where the younger magister has a very long conversation with her about how she has natural abilities in the Art (think untrained Jedi, okay?) and explains that she must train.  Instead of considering this utter reversal in her fortunes, "Emelyn did her best to keep busy, mostly tending to Ferrin in the stables.  She tried not to think to much on what Aldren had said about the Art ... It was all too much to take in at once."  Gah!  After speaking with Percival about her abilities, Emelyn pitches a fit and is practically comatose for days because ... learning that she can do cool things is somehow traumatizing.  She just wants to go back to being a plain ol' drudge!

Anyway, the whole point of this journey is that the magisters must confronts someone warped by the Art in the far north.  They get there eventually, and there is a battle, in which Stuff Happens, and after which Emelyn decides to be her own person, although who knows what that really means, with her track record?

All of the in-between stuff is either Major Foreshadowing or strange filler, like the insertion of a magical cook-dwarf named Cobbe and the woeful tale of Callum's family.

I also noticed a lot of strange word usage and just plain odd conversations.  For example, when Callum and Emelyn are running away from some bad guys, Callum tells Emelyn, "We've been heading south, though.  You can tell by the trees.  The moss tends to grow thickest on the northern side."  This only applies if they are in the northern hemisphere of whatever planet they're on.  If it's the southern hemisphere, moss grows more thickly on the south part of the tree.  There's a hilarious scene in an old Scooby-Doo episode with The Creeper, where Scooby and the Gang are lost in the woods, and to confuse them, the Creeper reaches over to the moss on the tree, rips it off, and sticks it back on another side.  That's instantly what I thought of during this scene.

The prose alternates between pretty normal and Trying Too Hard, although there are some good creepy bits when Emelyn encounters some dangerous creatures on the road.

Overall, I wasn't impressed with the story as it now stands.  Given a few more go-rounds of editing and fine-tuning, this could be amusing.

I received an ARC of this from NetGalley.


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