James K. Burk’s debut novel—The Twelve—is one of the finer examples of world building and character development I’ve read in the past year. The book tells story of Anton, commander of an army, who leads a victorious battle over the army of Valtierra, a city governed by a council of twelve. Anton then finds himself without a home when his life is threatened by his former Lord. An invitation comes from The Twelve for him to join their number and replace the warrior he defeated, so he goes to Valtierra to consider the position.
The Council is made up of representatives from each major sector of society: A Wise Old Man, A Merchant, A Harlot, A Farmer, A Fool, A Crone, A Mother, A Priest, A Rash Youth, An Artisan, a Matron, and the Warrior. As he gets to know the Council and Valtierra, they also get to know him, evaluating each other. Anton soon realizes they have a spy in their midst and a plot is afoot, and sets out to discover who’s behind it while throwing himself enthusiastically into the warrior’s role to earn his place among the Twelve.
Burk has done a great job of creating twelve distinct personalities and characters, each with surprising departures from the stereotypes one might expect. A Fool who turns out to be one of the wisest of the Council, for example. As the details of their lives, personalities and world are revealed a bit at a time, we are given rich dialogue and descriptions to bring all of this to life. Burk is an experienced storyteller and it shows. It’s clear he put a lot of thought into how each detail relates to the others, no matter how small, and that pays off in a richness and depth which reward the reader well.
Lost in the shuffle, however, in some sense, is plotting. My one criticism of the book is that it lacks a compelling tension throughout. Once the plot, which is only suspected at first, becomes apparent toward the middle of the book, things start moving with a lot more tension than they do in the opening chapters. It’s the rich characters and fantasy world which keep the reader going up to that point, and I think the book would have been stronger if he’d been able to leverage the tension throughout. My only other question was why the warrior would so quickly choose to join his enemies. The idea never seems to repel him, and there’s more of a sense of the other Council members wondering if he should be allowed to join than of him debating whether he wants to join. He’s a man without a home, yes. His life is in danger, yes, but he just fought a major battle against these people. Why does he not show more concern about whether they can accept him or whether it’s a trap for revenge?
In the end, these are minor quibbles. Coming in at only 194 pages—The Twelve—was an enjoyable read with short chapters each told from the point of view of one of the Twelve. We get only a glimpse of one city in a fantasy world which is clearly much richer and of which I’d like to see more. It would be interesting to see what other stories Burk could tell from this world. Anton would also be worth revisiting as he is a hero adorned with an old fashioned sense of confidence and honor.
I’d recommend the book and I’d recommend James K. Burk, whom I'm sure is only beginning to reach his potential as a storyteller.