Book Report – The Thirteen Hallows

In Britain, there are thirteen powerful, magical artifacts, called the Hallows, that are solely responsible for keeping a race of hungry demonic beings at bay.  Poised on the borders of the Otherworld and itching for a chance to devour the unsuspecting, apathetic denizens of modern Britain, these beings are simply biding their time while other forces maneuver to let them in.  It certainly doesn’t help that the Keepers of the artifacts are pensioners nearing the edge of their lives.

Things are looking grim in Britain these days.

Of course, there wouldn’t be much of a story if there wasn’t someone to challenge, and be challenged by, these evil monsters of the apocalypse. So, we’re introduced to our hero. Dominated by her mother and forced into a job she has no passion for, Sarah Miller starts off as an awkward and insecure 22 year old.  However, due to convenient timing and a few magical tricks from one of the Hallows, she alone comes to the aid of an old woman set upon by a couple of thugs.  The would-be-victim, Judith Walker, eventually reveals herself to be a Keeper of one of the thirteen Hallows, magical artifacts whose purpose is to keep demonic creatures out of Britain. Saving Judith puts Sarah on a dangerous path, as the current generation of Keepers is being hunted down and ritually murdered.  Eventually, Sarah is forced to take the sword Dyrnwyn, Judith’s Hallow, and bring it to Judith’s nephew, whose bloodline will allow him to realize its true potential.  Together, Sarah and Owen have to evade the shadowy killers and prevent all thirteen Hallows from being brought together.

Why must the Hallows be kept apart?  Judith certainly isn’t sure, as she relies on partial information given to her by a mysterious tramp whose advice was as brief as it was helpful.  Sarah has even less information, as Judith spent her career exploring the folklore surrounding the Hallows as a children’s author.  What they do know is that if all the Hallows are brought together, bad things are going to happen.

What follows is a breathless chase novel, with Sarah and a few unwitting but plucky allies braving murder and torture to protect the Hallows.  While this sounds largely like most other cat-and-mouse thrillers (and if we’re looking solely at plot construction, it really is mostly like others of its genre), the pair of authors Michael Scott and Colette Freedman work in threads of actual Welsh folklore that elevate the otherwise familiar plot into something really interesting.

The titular Thirteen Hallows were not simply made up to fuel the plot. Scott, a dizzyingly prolific author whose novels heavily incorporate folklore, and Freedman, an accomplished playwright, draw the items, as well as their powers, from actual Welsh mythology.  The two Hallows with which the book is mainly concerned, Dyrnwyn and the Horn of Bran, are mentioned in Culhwch and Olwen, a Welsh myth dating from the 12th Century.  Though the artifacts are used primarily to drive the plot forward, the real world and the mystical world of myth are constantly tied together.  For example, the novel’s climax takes place at a Halloween celebration in Wales, where a Burning Man-type folk festival is in full swing and the thousands of ignorant festival goers celebrate the very same magic and mysticism that has been plaguing Sarah since the beginning of the story.  This is one of the more obvious ways that Freedman and Scott prove their mastery of the lore.  It’s harder to spot some of the subtler bits, such as the fact that the action in most of the book is done by pairs: first Sarah and Judith, then Sarah and Owen, all the while being pursued by Vivian and the Dark Man or the two detectives.  It is no mistake that these pairs are predominantly male-female, which is an important aspect of the mythic background of the book (even Owen and Sarah’s respective artifacts, a sword and a horn, can be seen as a symbolic male-female pair).  Vivian and the Dark Man’s sexual practices mention the inherent power in such a pairing, and I found the reflection of that folk element to be a subtle addition to the book.  Heck, even the writers are a male-female pair.

It’s hardly perfect, though.  Some of the mythic nods seem a little frivolous, as if Scott and Freedman don’t want people to misunderstand just how rooted in Britain the novel is.  This becomes especially apparent when the sword begins to give Sarah brief flashbacks to its own history.  Especially owing to its obvious roots in Welsh folk tradition, a brief scene suggesting King Arthur to be a murderer and rapist seems to suggest that the copious violence and sexuality of the book is thrown in for sensationalism. The book is shockingly violent, but the repetitiveness of some of the murder scenes and ritual sex scenes (Vivian, in particular, never seems to be wearing any clothing for some reason) make it all quite wearying after a while.

Freedman and Scott also don’t seem to have much patience, as some of the longest continuous scenes of the book are shown from the point of view of doomed characters, who appear in the book only to be brutally murdered.  Sarah and Owen never have the same kind of quiet reflection that some of the most useless characters are awarded, owing to the focus on the chase aspect of the novel.

As this was an audiobook that I reviewed, a few words must be said about the reader, Kate Reading.  Aside from having a name that couldn’t be more suited to the role, she also has a surprisingly flexible voice, able to tackle the cast’s multitude of accents and dispositions with equal aplomb, from a gravelly Scottish brogue to a very slight Welsh inflection and everything in between.  Reading’s voice adds subtlety to the work that would be absent in the print version.  As she reads chapters in Sarah’s voice, for instance, Reading adds a touch of insecurity and a slight change from her normal speaking voice that tells you instantly that you’re in Sarah’s head.  Reading is consistent in giving each character a distinct voice, and in a book where the character count easily reaches into double-digits, it’s no mean feat.

The Thirteen Hallows, at its core, is a story about folklore presented in the guise of a modern thriller.  Sometimes the construction of the novel fairly screams “disposable read”; however, the attention to detail, the fusion of myth and reality, and the wonderful voice-over work by Kate Reading make this a novel, and a series, to follow. Fans of thrillers, urban fantasy, and even mythology and folklore will find themselves entertained by the book.

The Thirteen Hallows earns 4.25 ritual murders out of 5.

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