I enjoy whimsy and fairy tales, but The 13 Clocks falls short in its attempt to blend the two. I first learned of it in a discussion of Peter Beagle’s The Last Unicorn, when it was reported as similar in style and tone. Unfortunately, I found it a distinctly inferior tale, the vending machine version of a homemade chocolate chip cookie.
An evil Duke in a castle offering a princess’ hand in marriage. A prince in disguise as a minstrel. An oppressed township. An advisor of ambivalent motives. The traditional quest. An ending.
It just didn’t work for me. Whimsical needs a sense of playfulness, of minimal repercussion; whimsy does not include casual mention of spies fed to geese and a villain who “wore gloves when he was awake, which made it difficult for him to pick up pins or coins or the kernels of nuts, or to tear the wings from nightingales.” Catherynne M. Valente and Frances Hardinge are pros at achieving the veiled threat, the implication without disastrous consequence in their young adult books, and a bit of that jaunty devilishness could have been used here.
Even more importantly, the flip side to the dark in a fairy tale is the joy in the whimsy, playful fantasy and soaring imagery. This, not so much. There wasn’t any point where I felt the language or imagery delighted me. This was like the inverse of gaiety, a playing with the darkness instead of the light. My favorite bit of cleverness, I think, demonstrates this:
“‘I had high hopes of being Evil when I was two, but in my youth I came upon a firefly burning in a spider’s web. I saved the victim’s life.’
‘The firefly’s?’ said the minstrel.
‘The spider’s. The blinking arsonist had set the web on fire.’”
What I liked the most was the illustrations by Marc Simont, a strange sort of block-like acrylic colored in subdued autumn tones, the occasional rhyming, the imagery of the stopped clocks.
What failed to please was the authorial slant, the non-updating of a basic fairy tale, of a princess without agency, an un-wittily acknowledged deux-ex-machina solution, the sunset finish. This one is a pass.