It’s my job to teach reading. It is my pleasure to help children learn to love books. That is truly the more difficult task. I want to interest my students in good books, so when I hear about a book that is popular with them, I try to find out why it is appealing. The Last Thirteen by James Phelan is one of these.
Every morning, my students have to write a sentence or two in their reading logs about what they read the night before. One student who mentioned this title kept writing stimulating reports such as, “Sam and Lora were being pushed into a car while being shot at.” “Sam and Alex were running from some men with guns.” “Sam dived for the hole in the floor and saw a flash of gray as an Agent bumped into him.”
I finally asked him, “What exactly are you reading? It sounds like a video game.” When he told me the title, a couple of other boys in the class perked up and agreed that this was a really good book. I asked to borrow it when he was finished.
I have read hundreds of books for a book review web site, and I try to read with an open mind, but I confess to becoming immediately suspicious when I realized there are 13 books in the series first published in 2013. Turning out books at that rate doesn’t make me think “quality.” But it could happen.
Apparently, the gimmick is that the series starts with the number 13 and the titles work their way backward to 1. The Last 13 are teenagers with special gifts who need to be brought together to save the world from “an enemy plotting to destroy us all.”
At Plumfield & Paideia, we have no intention of making it our habit to review books for the sole purpose of disparaging them. However, the complete lack of redeeming value in this one has been haunting me for several weeks.
One positive aspect of this book is that there is nothing in it that is generally considered overtly offensive. No drugs, sex, or swearing. People are killed; there is just no way around it when you are saving the world from an all-destroying plotter, but there are no gory details. Unfortunately, there is also precious little substance and no originality. Besides finding out that he has special gifts that make him suitable for world-saving, Sam, the main character, also discovers that most of his life thus far has been a lie. His parents are not his biological parents!!! They are agents who were hired, “To look after you, guide you, to observe . . . your dreams. To see if you could be guided to have true dreams . . . The Agents’ job is to raise a potential Dreamer as their own child, caring for them, watching them, reporting on them constantly.” What a blow! “Sam felt nauseous.”
This book reads more like a movie script than literature. There is non-stop action with a bare minimum of description. After a harrowing escape from the bad guys, which includes a helicopter crashing into a swimming pool, Sam and two of his friends are whisked from the United States to Switzerland in a super-fast jet. In what way does location matter to the plot? I suppose it sounds exotic. What is it like in Switzerland? All we learn is that it is far from the United States and that they have mountains and snow.
From the stunning descriptions of setting, prepare for the deep and vivid emotions our characters experience. “Sam felt guilt.” Later, “Sam was shocked.”
Another element that could be considered positive by readers who may be consuming this book while involved in a high-speed chase or on guard for an attack by marauding monkeys, is that sustained attention is not a requirement. There are 39 chapters in a book 207 pages long – no chapter is longer than six 5” x 8” large-type pages.
While lacking in gore, drugs, sex, and swearing, this volume appears to be the opening for increasing mysticism. Sam’s gift is his ability to see the future in dreams. Translated from hieroglyphics, the obligatory ancient prophecy reads, “Dreaming of their destiny/Minds intertwined, thirteen will be./ Falter not, the last cannot fall,/Or Solaris shall rule over all.” Sam and his friends are given dreamcatchers to wear for protection, dreamcatcher emblems are worn on the uniforms of Sam’s handlers. One hallway in the Swiss fortress is made of spectral glass that reads a person’s aura and reflects his gifts. Sam has to get hold of a stone called the Star of Egypt before Solaris, the super-villain, gets it first.
I don’t have space to list all the cliches and awkward phrases. “Everyone here is in danger because of me.” “The very livelihood of our great city is at threat.” “With chaos reigning, Sam and Lora . . .” “He checked his watch — it’d stopped working.” “It’d?”
Sam and his team are given suits made of secret material “borrowed” from the military. They are bulletproof and can “change shape and style at the direction of the wearer.” Is that fair to Solaris? Let us not leave out the obligatory physical training scene. Sam and Alex get about a half-hour workout before they’re sent out to battle the forces of evil. Thank goodness Sam already knows jujitsu.
The last chapter of the book is Sam’s battle with Solaris. The final line is, “This is where you die, Sam . . . “ Gimmick? I should say so!