Let me start by saying I’m not sure where to start. This is the first book review I have ever written. In fact, it’s pretty much the first review of anything that I have ever written – well, since I was about ten when I wrote a review of a Norwich City football match because I was so shocked at the disastrous performance of the keeper (who let in a bizarrely awful goal then managed to knock himself unconscious). Anyway, whereas that review was stoked by outrage and disappointment, this one exists for entirely different reasons: Barry Hutchison’s The 13th Horseman is staggeringly, breathtakingly, absolutely fantastic!!
You may think I’m exaggerating, but I’m not. In fact I’m being entirely literal in my praise. It’s staggeringly fantastic because the story – which involves a young lad called Drake who finds the three Horsemen of the Apocalypse living in a magic shed at the bottom of his garden, and discovers shortly afterwards that he is the new fourth Horseman, Death – was so engaging that I could not put it down, and staggered from place to place attempting to read it on the move. It’s breathtakingly fantastic because it’s so hilarious that I often found myself laughing so hard I couldn’t get air into my lungs. And it’s absolutely fantastic because the action scenes are so intense, and I got so caught up in the drama, that for those periods of time this story was utterly absolute, nothing else in the world mattered.
Drake, his new best friend Mel, and the horsemen find themselves battling a previous Death (the high-stress job has a very high turnaround of staff, as Famine explains at one point by listing the fates of Drake’s predecessors: “Mad, mad, suicide, mad, quit, mad, goldfish, suicide, mad”), who is very keen to usher in the end of the world a few millennia early. My favourite scenes were the ones where Drake is training to be the new death – something he takes to like a fish… well, like a fish training to be the new death. A superb mix of wonderful Biblical mythology and “high-tech-mumbo-jumbo” keeps the action scenes racing along faster than an apocalyptic horseman’s flying steed (which is very, very fast). The pace really is relentless as Drake, Mel and the horsemen find themselves up against ever-more deadly threats, culminating in a heart-stopping final battle for the fate of the world.
For me, though, it is the humour that really makes this story stand out from the wealth of mythology-related books out there. It seriously is one of the funniest books I have read in a very long time. The source of that humour is the horsemen themselves: War (grumpy, impatient and Scottish), Famine (morbidly obese, perpetually starving, fond of Cornettos) and my favourite, Pestilence (hypochondriac, ever-fretting and, well, suppurating). They are an amazing comedy trio, as perfectly suited to each other as the Marx Brothers or the Three Stooges. They have been hanging around for thousands of years waiting to usher in Armageddon, and spend most of their time either arguing or playing board games or arguing whilst playing board games (the Guess Who sequence was my favourite). The dynamic between the horsemen is absolutely pitch perfect. Well, okay, maybe a couple of the jokes fall flat, but I was reading a proof copy of the book and they may well have been trimmed out. But either way, I really was giggling all the way through. They are one of the most amusing – and endearing – trios in children’s literature. In fact, at times during the novel they pose a danger of overshadowing the main character – although fortunately Drake is so well drawn out and developed that this never happens.
It’s a clever book, too, in the way it deals with issues of faith. The horsemen, after all, are right out of the New Testament, and writing a story like this could easily have caused problems for its author. But Barry handles his subject matter perfectly – talking about the mythology in a tongue-in-cheek way that also manages to be respectful. It’s his fondness for his cast that does it, I think, a real love and affection for the horsemen and the tradition they come from. And it isn’t just Christian mythology here – in this universe there is room for all beliefs, because it’s faith that makes things real. As Pestilence says – putting right a common “mistranslation” from the Bible – “Faith can make mountains.” It’s actually a really positive and tolerant message to pass on to young readers.
The 13th Horseman is the first part of Barry’s new Afterworlds series, which from what I can gather is a series of books set in the same universe (with its own vast lost property room), but with different characters and settings in each one. It’s an intriguing and exciting prospect, and Barry has done an excellent job here of setting the groundwork and the ground rules – there really is an unlimited multiverse of possibilities to work with. All I can say is that he’s going to have a hard job reaching the bar he has set for himself with this first volume. But as a writer who has already proven himself over and over (his Invisible Fiends books are brilliant), I have no doubt that he will. And I sincerely hope that wherever he goes next, War, Famine and Pestilence (and with any luck the Alfred Randall X-perience) get to go along for the ride.
I could go on, but in the interests of brevity I’ll wrap it up here by saying READ THIS BOOK! The combination of fantasy and gentle humour, and the ability to find the absurd in the everyday, is definitely reminiscent of Terry Pratchett (and I’m talking about early Pratchett here, which is for me the best Pratchett), but this is very much Barry’s world and Barry’s sense of humour, and with this book he is seriously proving himself to be one of the funniest and most exciting writers around. 13 may be unlucky for some, but for Barry Hutchison it’s an absolute winner.