Author: Shannon Delany
Publisher: St. Martin's Griffin
There's an old lawyer's saying: "If the facts are against you, pound upon the law. If the law is against you, pound upon the facts. If both are against you, pound upon the table." 13 to Life doesn't have the best plot- it's your standard issue high-school Love Dodecahedron, with the twist that the male lead is a werewolf. The execution is equally average, and Delany seems to know it. So she does the literary equivalent of pounding on the table- she pours on the style and the wit, convinced that just because it can't be the best story doesn't mean it can't be good reading. And you know what? It works. Well, it mostly works.
Jessica Gillmansen is an Ordinary High School Student coping with a few too many problems already. In addition to the standard-issue high school drama, her mother died before her eyes in a fiery car crash a few months ago. Her dreams now consist of nightmarish flashbacks, and her waking life is complicated by the aftermath- including a father who has grown distant and adults who are convinced she's going to slit her wrists any minute now. Into this mess walks Pietr Rusakova, the new kid in town. Handsome, aloof, and exotically foreign. Pietr instantly has the attention of every girl in school. However, Pietr himself only seems interested in Jessica. Problem there: Jessica only has eyes for the football star Derek, who in turn only has eyes for Jessie's boobs. Not into the whole Love Triangle thing, Jessica instead tries to pair Pietr up with her friend Sarah, who has some emotional problems of her own. But she can't seem to ignore her own attraction to Pietr, even though she's perfectly able to ignore the increasingly blatant hints from the author that Pietr is actually a werewolf.
13 to Life isn't the most original book on the shelf. In fact, there's a lot here that's just plain cliche. But damned if it isn't fun. It's written with a consistent sense of humor and character. In fact, I'd say it has the second best writing of any book on this blog to date. (The first being Raised by Wolves.) The characters are all unique, with their own little quirks and personalities. Jessie as the narrator is smart and spunky, Pietr strikes the right balance between aloof and caring, and the supporting cast adds greatly to the world. Most importantly, the book is entertaining. It made me grin, and occasionally even laugh out loud. (This is hard to do- I'm a cold-hearted bastard.) One amusing scene has Pietr's brother Max showing him "the proper way to hit on a girl", recruiting Jessie's friend Amy for the lesson. Max demonstrates several techniques before his gaze wanders into Amy's cleavage, causing her to bitch-slap him. Flirtatiously. The book is full of scenes like that- Jessie playfully flirting with her geeky friends on the bus, Derek using his hot-guy mojo to charm some girls and get Jessie out of trouble, Pietr using some trickery of his own to get Jessie some time to talk to Derek- it all oozes charm and wit.
I noted above that Jessie seems a little thick on the subject that Pietr's a werewolf. This is... both true and not, I think. In situations like this, we the readers more or less accept as a given that we will figure out the truth before the main character. The character, after all, doesn't know that she's living in a novel where every little coincidence will become relevant in some way, and she doesn't have the benefit of dust jacket blurbs and internet buzz informing her that this is a werewolf story. Still, the hints come so often that it starts to strain credibility. Early on it's revealed that Jessie, in her capacity as an aspiring journalist, has a ton of newspaper clippings on her bulletin board regarding a "Phantom Wolf" in a nearby town, which vanished around the same time Pietr's parents died. She doesn't make the connection. Pietr winds up falling out a fourth-story window right in front of Jessie, and walks away with just some bruises that have healed the next day. She says "Huh.", and waves it off. She actually asks him- as a joke, admittedly- "Are you a werewolf?" He says "Yes." She thinks he's just being a jerk. Since Jessie reads vampire novels (a bit of pandering to the readerbase that I'm willing to overlook), she really should pick up on these things. In fact, I'm convinced it's a running gag, seeing how many and how unsubtle the author can make these hints while her main character remains oblivious.
But it serves a very good purpose. Two purposes, in fact. First, it's fun, and second, it communicates a lot of information that otherwise would come out in a very awkward exposition sequence. That incident with the window, for example, shows us that werewolves have accelerated healing. There are a number of bits we get like this- a textbook example of show, don't tell.
So it's not the most original plot, but nothing especially wrong with it, plus it's entertaining with fleshed-out characters and a witty, clever writing style. Sounds like a must-read, right?
The harsh truth is, style can only get you so far. At some point you have to give the reader some substance, or the experience starts to feel hollow. As 13 to Life goes on, one by one the chickens come home to roost, and it wears the book down slowly. The first issue to become apparent is the cast. I praised them as being well-defined and having character, and they do. The problem is that too many of them don't serve any purpose beyond a single scene and some background color. The friendly guidance councilor, Jessi's three geeky friends, the blatantly-ephebophiliac gym teacher- they all show up, get some character development, and then vanish from the story. The Pietr-Jessie-Derek love triangle is dropped abruptly, and the Jessie-Pietr-Sarah love triangle remains unresolved despite having some very interesting dimensions. They're supposed to broaden the narrative, but they end up cluttering it.
A bigger problem is how Delany seems to be making things up as she goes. Pretty much every major plot twist is made up on the spot. Occasionally, the magic of revision allows the author to insert some foreshadowing earlier in the story, but it always seems contrived. The amber pendent is one of the most blatant examples. The worst, however, is probably the revelation about what really happened the night Jessie's mother died. It changes the entire perspective on an important secondary character- two characters, in fact- and it shows up literally out of nowhere, just before the new characterization becomes relevant. If it had been set up a little better, it would have been a great twist, but as it is the artificiality kills the impact.
But the biggest issue with the book is one that I didn't catch on to until I was fifty pages from the end. At that point there were a lot of subplots and tiny bits of foreshadowing up in the air, and the main plot had barely moved since the midway point of the book- despite some of the previous off-the-wall twists. It was beginning to feel like I was stuck in a never-ending Act I, and I realized that this was exactly the case: 13 to Life has Trilogy Syndrome. It wasn't planned as a single book- instead it's the first in a series, with nearly everything put off for later volumes to resolve. I waver back and forth over whether this is a Bad Thing or an artistic choice that disagrees with my tastes, but it is always, always annoying to me. The Wolves of Mercy Falls series has it pretty bad, but at least Maggie Stiefvater ties up any immediate plots before calling it a book. 13 to Life has it even worse- in the final chapters Jessie learns the Big Secret. Then a vaguely-foreshadowed bad guy shows up, bringing along an Exposition Rant and a bloodbath that resolves a handful of unanswered questions. Some of these questions I don't recall ever being asked before that point, which is odd to say the least. Then we end on a zero-resolution cliffhanger- and an ad for the second volume on the next-to-last page.
I will read the continuation, since this blog aims to be thorough in the study of its' subject matter. Honestly, if not for the blog I might read it anyway- this is the second-best-written werewolf book I've read to date. But I'm disappointed, maybe even offended.
Despite everything, 13 to Life is a good read. I'll recommend it. But I'm a little saddened by how it turned out. It could have been a great read, and yet it fell on its face in the second half. Do better next time, Ms. Delany. You've got it in you.