13th Boy 3-6 by SangEun Lee

After I read the first two volumes of SangEun Lee’s 13th Boy, in which a pertinacious girl named Hee-So Eun does everything in her power to win the love of the handsome Won-Jun Kang, I had high hopes for the quirky series but apparently not high enough because, starting with volume three, the story veers into unexpectedly (and awesomely) dark territory. That’s not to say that the sense of whimsy—best represented by Beatrice, a talking cactus—has disappeared. Indeed, volume six has several silly moments. But both the reader and Hee-So discover that things are more serious than expected, with the result being that she reveals some admirable qualities that she had not previously displayed.

The bulk of the drama revolves around three childhood friends: Won-Jun, Whie-Young, and Sae-Bom. The three of them have been stuck in a love triangle for years, with Won-Jun pining away for Sae-Bom, and Sae-Bom pining for Whie-Young. But so much time has passed, they begin to question what it is they actually feel for each other. Won-Jun, for example, is staying near Sae-Bom partly out of guilt born of an awful secret that in turn led to a serious accident. Sae-Bom is stunted because of these incidents, behaving like her seven-year-old self (though she is now fifteen) in an attempt to return things to how they used to be. And Whie-Young doesn’t want much to do with either of them.

Into their group comes Hee-So, and though she first appears obnoxious (I didn’t like her much in the first two volumes) her bright outlook and unfiltered expression of what she’s feeling make a big difference in their lives. At first, she merely turns the triangle into a square, with Whie-Young drawn to her while she chases after Won-Jun, but soon begins to make an impact on the others as well. Although Hee-So initially befriends Sae-Bom because it hurts to see Won-Jun caring for his damaged friend so solicitously and she figures he’ll have to do less of that if she helps out, she throws herself into the friendship with true commitment and eventually helps Sae-Bom relinquish her tight hold (literal and mental) on Toe-Toe, a stuffed rabbit who at one point had been given life by Whie-Young, who has magical powers.

You might not think that convincing a teenage girl to give up her stuffed animal would be riveting drama, but it really is. There’s a lot of emotional baggage concerning Toe-Toe, like who was responsible for his death and what that has subsequently meant for Sae-Bom’s emotional state. Simultaneously, Hee-So’s ability to rebound after being snubbed by Won-Jun makes him relax, because even if he should hurt her accidentally, it doesn’t affect how she feels about him. In time, he grows to feel a profound peace in her company and once Sae-Bom actually starts to look at him instead of Whie-Young, it may already be too late for her, because Hee-So has gotten her wish at last.

Starting in volume three, each volume is full of major progress in the story, to the point where I began to think “And there are twelve volumes of this series?! We’re not supposed to find this stuff out until the very end!” But SangEun Lee continues to come up with unforeseen avenues for the story to travel, with the most recent development being that Beatrice, the talking cactus, has realized that he is in love with Hee-So. Although this results in some amusingly absurd dialogue, like “Please don’t say that. It’s an unworthy thought. I am a cactus. I don’t have the right to love her…” it’s still treated fairly seriously, and Beatrice’s wish to become human (something he already manages each month on the full moon) has the potential to complicate the story still further.

And yet, while the romantic feelings of each character are definitely important and inform their motivations, this is not a story that can simply be settled by Hee-So and Won-Jun getting together and living happily ever after. There are too many secrets and too many deep bonds for matters to wrap up so neatly. Will Sae-Bom succeed in redirecting Won-Jun’s attention onto herself? Will Won-Jun, now that he has conquered the symbolic hurdle of “crossing the bridge” into Hee-So’s neighborhood, regress back into childhood obligations or continue on his own path, which ultimately might not include Hee-So? Will Whie-Young, who purports to be tough but yet frequently grants magical favors at the cost of his own health, really fail to live to the age of twenty? In many series, I would doubt that the death of a major character would be allowed to occur, but not 13th Boy.

If you read only the beginning of the series and dismissed it as a romantic comedy, I urge you to reconsider, because 13th Boy is surprising, complex, and well worth reading.

Review copies for volumes three, five, and six provided by the publisher.

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  1. I think you, me, and Melinda may be the only people reading 13th Boy. I hope your review persuades more people to try it! I couldn’t agree more with your assessment of the series’ strengths; no matter how ridiculous it sounds on paper, it’s a really delightful and moving story that’s as much about growing up as it is about bagging a cute guy.

    • I hope so, too. I am thinking about forcing it onto a friend or two. And thanks! I actually went back and read your reviews of the series after I’d posted mine, and was pleased to see we’d actually picked up on a lot of the same things.

  2. Thanks to the praise I heard from all of you I tried out the first 3 volumes and I’m really enjoying it. It’s deliciously cracked out (a talking cactus named Beatrice!?) but really well done. I’d kind of forgotten about it for a while, but this review definitely makes me want to catch up. I stalled out because it looked like the relationships might stay in a love-square for too long, but knowing things get more complicated makes me want to keep going with this series.

    • I was fully expecting nothing to happen or change until the final volume, because that’s totally how things usually work, but was pleasantly surprised by how things developed. I definitely encourage you to keep going!

  3. I’m reading it, too! I love it! I shared your surprise at the pace of the story. Every time something new is actually flat-out revealed (instead of just hinted at for volume after volume), I’m surprised and have no idea where things will go next. Thanks for talking up a unique series that is way more than just your average “cheerful (to the point of stupidity) girl single-mindedly stalks her unrequited love interest until they finally get together and live happily ever after” story. 🙂

    • Glad to hear you’re enjoying it, too! The first two volumes had me concerned that it would be the kind of story that you describe, but I’m obviously quite happy that did not actually come to pass. It truly is unique.

  4. I am in the process of reading vol.9(YenPress) sent me this volume while I haven’t read volume 1-8. I am a little confused as to where the cactus/guy comes in, but nonetheless I will read on and review on my website.

    • Spoiler alert for those who care about the origins of Beatrice the cactus!

      I may not be remembering this exactly correctly, but basically Whie-Young was going to move away or something so imbued a cactus with life so that it could watch over Hee-So. She named the cactus Beatrice, and one day it turned into a boy! (This might happen on the full moon, I can’t remember.) At first he was just a kid, but as time wore on, he grew up like she did and recently has been unable to resume his original form. He’s been hanging out at Whie-Young’s house because he loves Hee-So and it’s been awkward staying with her, especially in his current state.

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