I’m one of those people who has a lot of hope for the idea of self-publishing and how the rise of ebooks makes getting your work out to readers less of a trek to Mordor and more of a jaunt over to Buckland (even if folk are strange there and mess about on boats…). That’s why I decided to test out something I’m calling “Free Book Friday”, where I review an ebook by an unknown author that I downloaded onto my Nook for free.
(Yes, I am a Nook person. They did touchscreen e-ink first and they support epubs. Also its name is River Song because I’m cool like a bow tie.)
And so, this inaugural Free Book Friday post covers The Thirteenth Unicorn by W.D. Newman.
Ben Alderman and his sister Casey discover a portal to a world of magic, a world discovered, shaped, and settled by wizards. It is a world where elves and dwarves are locked in mortal combat against a witch who is trying to free the last wizard from exile. The witch has been defeated once before but with the combined power of the wizard, no one will be able to stand against them.
You can see why I chose to download this book. Elves, wizards, Dwarves and portals to magical worlds? Hell yes, sign me up! The Thirteenth Unicorn is the first of 3 in Mr. Newman’s Ben Alderman Series and was published in 2011. It’s geared towards younger readers, but I’m someone who loves YA and even children’s novels. I grew up in Narnia and I’m solidly in the Harry Potter Generation (Ravenclaws represent!). I’ve spent years in Tortall and Valdemar. A Wrinkle in Time, The Moorchild and The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle are to this day among my favorite books. I’m not unfamiliar with stories written for children or pre-teen readers, especially when those stories are part of the fantasy genre.
I tell you this, dear reader, in the hopes that you will better understand the despair you’re about to witness and sympathize with me and how long it took me to finish so I could unravel this for you. Here we go.
Lena Heady portraying me during this experience with stunning accuracy.
Warp: World of the Story
There are two worlds in this story, ours and “Camelot”. The portions of the story taking place in this world are mostly on a farm in South Carolina where the protagonist, Ben, and his sister Casey are sent to stay for the summer while their father is on a business trip. It seems to be a cattle farm of some sort run by the protagonist(s?) grandparents set in your standard country landscape: forty miles or more from big box stores, little more than a pizza joint and a local grocery depot. And a flea market where you can buy authentic emerald necklaces from “oriental ladies” after a bit of haggling.
The world of Camelot is…also fairly standard fantasy world fare. Elves? Check. Dwarves? Check. Fairies? Yup. Magic? All over. Gentle-giant shapeshifting bear man? That, too. Arthur and the Round Table? *chirping of crickets*
Contrary to what one might think, there is no Arthurian legend at play in this world with the exception of the names Merlin and Mordred. There is no mention of Arthur or knights, no use of the vast and almost endless variety of legends concerning the name Camelot, which makes me wonder why the author chose to use the name at all if he wasn’t going to draw on the associated lore whatsoever. Even young children will have a frame of reference for such a specific name. Mr. Newman’s “Camelot” is a parallel world discovered by wizards–Merlin among them–who needed to escape their own world (Zorn) which was dying of global warming (I’m not joking. That’s specifically mentioned). Through magical portal trees, they discover uninhabited Camelot and invite Elves, fairies, Dwarves, and even humans to live there and create a utopia which of course inevitably failed. How it failed is unclear, though in the most massive info-dump I’ve ever seen it’s implied that the failure was due to the inherent barbarism of humans and possibly also maybe Mordred getting his Morgoth on and wanting to claim dominion. But that’s also unclear. All that is clear is that Mordred did the thing 837 years ago and ever since the Elves have hidden themselves in a magical TARDIS forest called the Twilight and a witch has been running about killing unicorns so she can use their horns to release Mordred from the pestilence planet/world where he was exiled. This pestilence world apparently set loose a fog-like disease called The Blight that kills plants, Elves, and Dwarves (but not humans somehow) and…doesn’t really affect much of anything at all really. There are some evil species in this world, primarily things called snakers which I gather are snake people of some sort who operate under a hive mentality. There’s an ogre. There’s some disgruntled humans. There’s the witch and a thing called a shadow-cat, both of which make a blip of an appearance.
Mr. Newman very obviously borrowed heavily from classic fantasy, namely Narnia and Middle-earth, with little of his own embellishment beyond the snakers. Camelot operates on Narnian time, which the characters spend far too much time discussing. The name “Long Lake” I could let slide, as it’s so generic, but Nimrodell? Really? Even with the extra “L”, that’s still obvious Tolkien. The Elves and Dwarves are carbon copies of the Eldar and the Khazad, down to drinking miruvor and saying “at your service” with a bow upon introduction. “Camelot” is one hell of a sloppy patchwork quilt of frayed bits snipped from more complete–and more engaging– worlds.
Working Threads: The Characters
Have you ever watched Mystery Science Theatre? If you haven’t, I suggest you do. Back in the day 10 or so years ago, it became a thing in internet fanfiction circles to take particularly horrendous fanfics and deconstruct them in MST fashion. Thanks to the “Note” function, as The Thirteenth Unicorn wore on, I found myself doing much the same.
We have Ben Alderman, ostensibly our protagonist though you wouldn’t be able to tell from the narration. He’s your standard 7th grade nerd-turned-epic-hero who shuns (yes SHUNNNNNS!) sports. We’re told he gets picked on and shoves his glasses up his nose so he must be a poor widdle nerd. He likes to poke his sister in the ribs for no reason, wash soda cans before opening them, and call Wal-Mart “Wally World. When told specifically to keep quiet about the dimensional portal in the backyard, the first thing he does with that information is blab it to the neighbor boy in the hopes that neighbor boy will think he’s cool. At least, we’re told this happens. We don’t actually get to see it happen. He also spontaneously develops asthma when the plot requires him to suddenly be like the kid from IT and whip out his trusty inhaler weapon. His asthma is very accommodating, too. It lets him race against his sister and run around most of Camelot without incident, only flaring up once just at the right moment for the witch to grab him. How kind of it! He comes across as maybe 8 or 9 years old instead of his described 13 and is completely unawed by discovering an alternate world full of magic and danger. Ben commits the same crime as many of the “Girl Falls Into Middle-earth” fics written in the early 2000s after Fellowship of the Ring premiered: he has almost no reaction to being in this very strange and different world and is constantly being deferred to by people from that world who are also his elders, namely a set of Dwarves.
Casey Alderman is Ben’s 14 year old sister who is, of course, obsessed with boys and friends and malls because she’s a 14 year old girl and that’s what 14 year old girls do right? She also must be in possession of a Time Turner, since she manages to play at least 5 sports, two of which run concurrent seasons. Casey does very little, with the exception of being poked in the stomach and/or ribs by Ben, petting baby goats, and tagging along after the rest of the D&D group. And crying about Ben. She does a lot of crying. She at least is smart enough to keep the information about the inter-dimensional portal tree secret from the neighbor girl.
At this point I should mention that their mother is also in a coma due to a drunk driving accident. This information is told to us with a lack of passion that would make Vulcans applaud.
Louise Alderman is the grandmother, and the one who discovered the portal tree. She visits all the time to hang out with a shape-shifter bear man named Amos and she keeps the world secret from her husband. It’s ok…let your minds go there. Mine did, too. Her only real function in the story is to provide an info-dump about these different worlds and wizards and things. She doesn’t do much else besides crying and tagging along and cooking until the end where she anticlimactically blasts Cthulu with a unicorn horn. Oh, also Ben and Casey’s mom isn’t in a coma because of an accident, it’s because the witch tried to kill Louise but she was wearing an emerald so the spell transferred to the next person she touched (which was Carol) because emeralds are super-rare in Camelot and are spellcatchers so she slowly went into a coma and then got hit by the drunk driver.
Meg and Joey are the neighbor kids and they do literally nothing. I think they say 12 things between them the entire book. There’s zero characterization of them except to say they’re pretty to look at and the one thing they do could easily have been done by Casey and her grandmother alone. Chapters go by without them being mentioned at all. Hob, Nob, and Gob are …wait. Let’s make this a game! Three characters with rhyming names in a Tolkien-derivative children’s fantasy book.
“What are interchangeable Generic Dwarves?”
Correct! There is also Amos, the shape-shifter and your standard gruff but good giant
and Ben and Casey’s real grandfather. There are some Elves named–wait for it–Gabriel, Marcus, and Jonah who seem to wear their hair like Bombur does his beard in The Hobbit movies and have the intelligence of brain-damaged sea slugs. (The lay of the land doesn’t change much in nearly 900 years? Traveling on a cold river will help hide your body heat from the heat-sensing snake people?
The villains in this story are essentially non-existant. The witch is never named and never speaks and aside from one attack in the prologue and one attack at the end in which she is so easily defeated you have to wonder why the Elves sat on their asses in the Twilight for nearly 900 years, she doesn’t appear and poses no actual threat. Mordred the evil wizard is stuck in Pluton the pestilence world and the nameless witch’s plan is to release him. Which is why she’s been killing unicorns for nearly 900 years because apparently their horns undo the spell or something? Mordred, though. Mordred is when I lost all sympathy for this story and all my remaining meager confidence in its author.
Mordred got trapped in Pluton because he didn’t realize Merlin wasn’t there with him because he forgot to count how many wizards were standing around him.
That’s right. You read that correctly. The villain of this entire series is so thick-skulled that it slipped his mind to make sure his archenemy was actually present when pulling off his great big plan to trap all the other wizards.
Well, Mordred clearly was.
Pattern: The Plot
The short version?
I’m not even sorry for the gifs at this point. I’m that frustrated.
The plot of this thing is tedious. It’s full of build-up that goes no where, what’s supposed to be a tense and epic climax is a bland and implausible battle, an infuriatingly easy fight with the witch, and an even more infuriating break-in to her tower to steal the horns that could have been accomplished with ease by a shitfaced frat boy because the witch had no guards on her damn tower. The conclusion takes ages and is full of fluff. Important events, like character building conversations or revelations, are rushed while tedious minutiae like Ben creating the gorram ham sandwich are plodded through in excruciating detail. There are holes the size of my face. There’s mention of a prophecy that Ben fulfills, but we are never ever once ever actually told the prophecy and it is only mentioned once in relation to Ben after the fact of him having apparently fulfilled it! Like Judy Garland is singing above, there is no tension in this story whatsoever and I don’t care about a jot of it.
It’s obvious that this has never seen any form of proofreading, at least not from an honest person. It is littered with grammar and spelling errors and reads like a first draft rather than a finished product. Mr. Newman suffers a fatal case of “Telling Disease”. It may be a somewhat cliched writing adage, “show don’t tell” but when you read a story like this that is almost entirely telling you realize just what good advice it actually is. We are told, rather than shown, everything. We never see Ben get teased, we’re just told that he is. We don’t get to read the conversation or experience Ben’s thoughts leading up to him revealing the existence of the portal tree to Joey, we’re just told that he did it. In fact, the most characterization or emotion anyone gets in this story is the poor ogre, who is killed after a few paragraphs.
Mr. Newman also does something extremely odd. He name-drops brands. He does it everywhere. Instead of describing a car once, he always refers to it as “the Honda” or “the Galaxy”. Instead of saying ‘watch’, he says “Timex”. Whenever there’s a brand to be named, it gets named without fail. I don’t even know how to explain this phenomenon, it’s simply strange and really very distracting.
If you look up reviews of this book on Amazon or Barnes&Noble many of them will actually be fairly favorable. It’s called “perfect for young readers”.
There. Right there. That is what infuriates me. It may seem that I’ve been overly harsh on this book, but to my mind it deserves it. I suspect its poor quality is due to lack of experience on the author’s part and serious lack of proofreading, but those two issues are dismissed in the reviews I’ve read because….it’s a children’s book. As if children don’t deserve quality, well-paced, well-plotted books with complete worlds and engaging characters? Just because something is geared towards a younger audience does not excuse poor quality or exempt it from analysis. Children are smart. They can handle complex stories and even dark stories! I know because not all that long ago, I was a kid and I hated being pandered to with watered-down “kid’s versions” when that was really code for “not as good”.
This book is not perfect for young readers, not by any stretch. There’s so much potential in the idea of discovering a magic portal to another world, and while the prevalence of other such themes makes it hard find a fresh approach, imagination has no boundaries. There are countless ways to re-imagine this theme without parroting Lewis and Tolkien (sometimes literally). The Thirteenth Unicorn is poor thread, poor weaving, bland colors, and completely see-through. It’s a first draft of an idea that should have been carded for far longer than it was before attempting to spin thread out of it, and certainly before trying to make it into a cloak.
Do not go to Camelot. It is a silly place.