This is the third and final volume in ‘The Thirteen’ trilogy, following on from The Thirteen Treasures and The Thirteen Curses and it has teenage Rowan living a conventional life. But she has a secret. Under the name of Red she used to be an agent whose job was to rescue changelings. A girl named Suki starts reminding Rowan of her past, calling her by her trade name Red.
Rowan has made an enemy. While rescuing her brother James she was once imprisoned in a cellar with a man named Eldritch. She learned that Eldritch knew where James was, but chose not to tell her. When she escaped from the cellar she left Eldritch to die. Not unnaturally Eldritch is now in search of revenge.
An undercover agent who is desperate to retire but who is persuaded to undertake just one last mission is not a new theme. The last mission always turns out to be the most complex and dangerous. Now Rowan must undertake one last case, but finds that in this instance it is the mother who has been stolen and substituted. Her friends Fabian and Tanya are her helpmates.
Although The Thirteen Secrets can be read alone, it is a definite advantage to be familiar with its substantial back story. The characters of Rowan, Fabian and Tanya are lively and convincing. The sympathy and enthusiasm of the reader are mobilised by their plans and actions. But the show is stolen (at least for me) by Tanya’s dog Oberon. His closeness to and understanding of his human partner remind us of Pullman’s daemons. In the course of the book Oberon’s loyalty is put to a severe test. But he is named after the king of the fairies and he survives intact.
There is a symbolic weakness in the characterisations. Critics such as Pinsent and Keith have pointed out that in traditional children’s literature, disabled characters were too often depicted as predestined victims or sinister stereotypical villains. Contemporary authors have moved away from these unreflective tropes. But a fairy who has had polio starts filling a useful function – and then dies. And Eldritch loses a hand escaping from his cellar, becoming the archetypal malformed figure. It is a pity that this otherwise uniformly excellent book is marred in a way that could have been easily avoided.