Thursday, 9 May 2013

Book Review: 'The Thirteen Treasures' by Michelle Harrison

This is my thirteenth blog post and I am wearing a red dress to write it – I don’t want the fairies to get me.

The Thirteen Treasures[i] was recommended to me by an eleven-year-old when I was worrying aloud about whether or not my intended audience (ages eight to eleven) would find a book about tooth fairies, even if they were malevolent tooth fairies, too babyish and boring.

‘My friends and I all love The Thirteen Treasures books,’ she said, I think with a roll of her eyes.  ‘That’s about fairies. I think as long as you make sure it’s not boring, people will love reading it.’

Alright, Smartypants. Thanks for the advice.

So obviously when I went home, I googled the book and immediately followed the author on Twitter (@mharrison13 if you’re interested).  And then I panicked. Who was this writer and why had she already written a children’s book about wicked fairies? I had a tantrum about the fact that someone else had already done all the research I’d done for my dissertation and then, because I can’t resist a fairy story even if my world is potentially crashing down, promptly bought the book.

And as soon as I opened it, I forgot I was supposed to be panicking. I forgot about all my fairy-related fears.  I forgot that I was reading a book that was recommended to me by an eleven-year-old.

I was engrossed.

The story follows Tanya, whose life is made miserable by fairies that nobody else can see, evil fairies who taunt and punish her for writing about them.  When Tanya is sent away to stay with her grandmother at Elvesden Manor, she attempts to learn how to keep her tormentors away  but instead finds herself entangled in a local mystery that started fifty years ago when another young girl vanished in the woods. It is up to Tanya  and her friend Fabien, to avoid the fairies and figure out what happened.

The first thing you should know about The Thirteen Treasures is that it is really scary. And I mean spine chilling, hairs standing on end, I’m afraid of sleeping with the light off scary. I don’t think I’ve been so frightened whilst reading a book since I was eight years old and stayed up until 1am reading the basilisk scenes in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets by torchlight under my duvet. I didn’t sleep well after finishing that either. Secret cellar passages, hidden corridors, and magical woods are all perfect settings, but Harrison’s words bring them all alive. You can really feel the danger, and I was constantly looking over my shoulder as though the act reading the novel itself is crime enough for the fairies to come after me.

It is the control Harrison has over her prose that really stands out for me, especially since the story doesn’t shy away from using the tried and tested tropes: there is a village full of unusual antique shops, a strange old lady who gives the characters the information they need, and a moody groundsman who knows more than he’s letting on. In retrospect, nothing that happens in the story is a surprise. The events should have been predictable, but I gasped every time a detail was unveiled. The novel’s structure is so tightly organised, and the story’s  pace is so perfect, that instead of feeling let down when a loose end was tied up, I was left feeling satisfied. Instead of trying to work out what would happen next – like I normally always do – I was turning pages the as fast as I could. It’s seems the wise eleven-year-old who recommended it to me was right: the subject matter isn’t actually that important as long as you can find an exciting way of telling it. And, anyway, after the Disnified stories I grew up with, I’m really glad there’s something out there that features proper fairies.

Overall, I may not have got the art of the book review down just yet, but I enjoyed The Thirteen Treasures much more than a lot of the other children's books I’ve read recently. I should get back to work now, but I have a feeling I might end up buying the sequel The Thirteen Curses instead.

[i] There seems to be an inconsistency online about whether or not the title contains the word ‘the’. My edition, however, does so this is the title I have chosen to use in the review.

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Thank you for reading. I would love to hear what you think!