The 13th Witch
By Mark Hayden
- The 13th Witch
Author: Mark Hayden
- Series: The Kings Watch
- ISBN: 978-1999821210
- Published: August 2018
- Pages: 200
- Format reviewed: Paperback
- Review date: 06/05/2021
- Language: English
I find it amazing how easy it is to miss things that are right on your doorstep. I grabbed this book online (not by choice, this was before the shops had re-opened) because I was after some easy reading. I often find good urban fantasy easy and immersive. It was only after actually picking the book up I realised that the author lives locally and lists one of his jobs as town clerk in the very town I live in. Out of the millions of books I had to choose from, the one I chose was written by someone who had worked within a few yards of my house and lived in the area. Maybe with chances like that I should play the lottery more often.
It's been out a few years now and is the start of a series known as "The King's Watch" which has eight published books so far. It looks like there are plans for the main series to have 13 books in total as the titles count down (The 13th Witch, The Twelve Dragons of Albion, The Eleventh Hour). There is also an adjacent series of five books called "A King's Watch Story" which are novella length and feature one of the series other characters (Vicky) take one the role of principle protagonist.
Told in first person from the viewpoint of ex Royal Air Force helicopter pilot Conrad, The 13th Witch begins just as he appears to be leaving Morecambe Bay with some serious trouble behind, including some deaths and a girlfriend in prison. As a reader, you are thrown on at the deep end and fed tantalising glimpses of Conrad's past, including a mysterious voice telling him to hide the AK47 he happens to have on him after the previously alluded escapades. I like how you don't just get fed a huge back story of the character as that can slow the story, but here you are presented with so little that it feels you are jumping in at mid-point and I had to double check it was really the first in the series. It's worth sticking with it though, because this is promising start to a series. After doing a bit of digging I also discovered that these previously hinted at exploits are actually part of a previously written thriller / crime trilogy called Operation Jigsaw. Switching genres like that is not only damned clever and pretty gutsy, it's also something that I've rarely seen before. To make things even more interesting, Conrad doesn't appear to be exactly a good guy in these books, in fact he seems to be on the wrong end of a police chase.
Partly because of the top secret, shadowy, and possibly not entirely heroic work he has previously been involved in, and partly because of the fact that he has some serious survival skills (he's got a titanium bolstered leg from his time in touring the middle east and more recent concussion and broken bones), shortly after arriving at his family home in Gloucestershire, he is visited by non other than Odin, the all-father, being the origin of previously mentioned mysterious voice. Odin gives him the opportunity to work again in a top secret, shadowy department on behalf of the Crown (known as the King's Watch) - but the entrance exam has a high probability of getting him killed. It also appears that magick (yes with a "k", for reasons) is entirely real and than Conrad himself might have a tiny vestigial spark of such magick buried within, just perhaps not enough to prevent himself from getting killed. So begins the process of Conrad slowly learning about this hidden world of dwarves, witches, mages, magick with a k and giant people-eating moles (a nice touch). The actual main plot of the book doesn't really take off until half way through, when Conrad begins to try and find the titular 13th Witch who is lost / missing / kidnapped.
I like the author's voice, it's friendly, disarming and engaging. It reminds me a little of Ben Aaronovitch. The quality of the writing is also good and edited well for the most part. It's great to see some real life (and some fictitious) Lancashire locations feature - along with some time spent in one of my favourite cities - London, I also like the attention to detail the author goes to with these varied places. The book is light-hearted for the most part and doesn't take things too seriously, making reference to other fantasy works such as Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter and how "real magic is nothing like those stories". It's perhaps inevitable that comparison is drawn to the big British Urban Fantasy by the previously mentioned Aaronovitch and his Rivers of London series, but I don't think they are similar beyond a surface level, if anything the character of Conrad is closer to Dresden than Grant with his style of self-depreciating humour.
The character of Conrad is intriguing - it's good that the author has given him a disability, a reminder that all these dangers have real repercussions while also making him a bit more human. He is a fairly like-able if over-confident character, although his views on women seem a little "laddish". He's not the bad guy that the previous series suggests he may be either, but I guess making him so might have been a step too far.
The 13th Witch is a promising start with an interesting cast, when the story does get going it's engaging and has a modern quality about it. The world the author is building has a nice tone and I like how he handles the crossover between modern technology and old magick. Worthy of a read as a stand-alone and good enough to pick up the next in the series, The Twelve Dragons of Albion.
Written on 6th May 2021 by Ant .