If you spend a lot of time among heavy readers of self-published fantasy, it’s hard not to have heard of The Thirteenth Hour, Trudie Skies’ tale of a conspiracy that threatens the established order of a steampunk world of twelve races living in a tenuous peace. My SPSFC judging has shifted by indie reading heavily toward the science-fiction end, but the parade of reviews hailing The Thirteenth Hour as one of the best books of the year got my attention and provided an excellent excuse to jump back into the fantasy side.
The Thirteenth Hour takes place on Chime, a neutral world created so that the twelve mortal races may seek their fortunes away from the twelve realms of their immortal creators. It rotates between two first-person perspective characters—a Vesper named Kayl, with the according power over shadow, and a time-manipulating Diviner named Quen. Kayl is one of the Godless, a group that seeks to aid those in the dregs of society and free them from the power of their cruel gods and an oppressive social structure. Quen, on the other hand, is a Warden, seeking to protect the established order. But when a series of mysterious murders bring their paths together, they must work with each other to prevent an upheaval that could destroy them both.
The early consensus on The Thirteenth Hour praises the stunning worldbuilding and excellent characterization and prose, while allowing that a slow start may necessitate some perseverance before the reader really becomes engrossed in the story. And I agree with half of it. The narration vividly brings to life the two main characters, and distinguishes them well enough to switch between two first-person perspectives without confusion (and, in a clever flourish, the chapter indicators switch between Arabic and Roman numerals as the perspective switches). The secondary characters don’t get the same level of depth, but a pair of excellent characters is enough for a series opener, and both Kayl and Quen are put in situations that force them to question their existing beliefs and commitments as they struggle to know how to proceed in light of new discoveries. The story gives them precious few easy decisions, and those dilemmas reveal the layers of the characters while spurring them to further depth. It’s excellent work, and it’s easy to understand the hype.
And I’m not even convinced that the start is especially slow—there’s mortal danger from the get-go, and the central mystery is compelling from very early. Unfortunately, I did not share the fascination with the worldbuilding. None of the twelve races had the cultural depth to bring them to life—as does Martha Wells with one of my favorite fantasy races: the Raksura—coming off more-or-less like humans with a special defining trait or power. The Vesper can manipulate shadow, the Glimmer light; the Diviners manipulate time and are obsessed with punctuality, the Ember fire and are hot-headed and sexually voracious, and so on and so forth.
Of course, figuring out how to bring twelve races into even tenuous accord is a non-trivial undertaking, and that can drive an interesting story even if the races themselves aren’t fully developed. But again, the harmonious society felt shallow. There was a ban on trying to pull mortals away from worship of their own gods, and the race with hypnotic song was prohibited from singing, but apart from that, it was mostly up to the (generally Diviner) Wardens to keep the peace, and the high-society Glimmer to exert their own influence over that peacekeeping.
And this brings me to my chief complaint: religion. Because each race serves their own gods, and their gods have vastly different values, it would seem that the concept of sin would vary wildly, once you get past the base sins of blasphemy and apostasy. And yet, sin seems to be defined to more-or-less correspond with the strictures of major Western religions—never mind that there’s an entire race who worship a god of passion and sexual license, promiscuity is still a sin, along with several other sensual pleasures. And perhaps some of this can be attributed to the Puritanical Glimmer breaking the rules against proselytizing and exerting undue influence over Chime’s religion, but that doesn’t explain why mortals who regularly commune with such disparate gods seem to unreflectively accept these categories.
The struggle against the cruelty of the gods themselves still works well enough—a band of misfits fighting to free the oppressed and make the world a better place may not be an original plot, but it’s common for a reason—but what should be a fight to defend (or even to appreciate) pluralism turns into a reckoning over whether a little bit of sin is good, actually (a framing that is a personal pet peeve, and one I’ll note is suspiciously never applied to anything but sensual sins). Furthermore, it leaves obvious villains in the spotlight for far too long, putting off the inevitable confrontation and the revelation of the fascinating and genuinely morally complex conflict behind the curtain.
As you can tell by the time I’ve spent talking about this book, it’s one that got a little under my skin. And, while that may not be for entirely positive reasons, it’s also a sign that a book is doing something right. I don’t slog through hundreds of pages of a book I’m hating just so that I can spend a couple paragraphs critiquing the worldbuilding. But the book was so readable and the characters so interesting that I couldn’t talk myself into quitting. And I was rewarded with an ending that does so many things well—a big step forward from the obvious villains that came before—albeit one that raises as many questions as it answers. And yeah, my (perhaps idiosyncratic) complaints about the religion prevented me from getting fully onboard, but there was still plenty of quality writing on display from an author I’ll be keeping an eye on in the future.
Recommended if you like: gaslamp fantasy, rebellions against gods.
Can I use it for Bingo? This book is a treasure for hard mode cards—as of now, it’s hard mode for
Self-Published, Found Family, Mystery Plot, Revenge-Seeking Character, and First Person. It’s also a 2021 Release, and between the writing and posting of this review has crossed the threshold into regular Self-Published.
Overall rating: 13 of Tar Vol’s 20. Three stars on Goodreads.