Sunday, January 12, 2014

Book Review: Thirteenth Child

Patricia Wrede is one of my favorite authors and one whom I credit with really getting me interested in fantasy way back in middle school yet if you asked me I wouldn't be able to name that many books of hers. I've read The Enchanted Forest Chronicles (which starts with Dealing with Dragons which is probably a more recognizable name) and I enjoyed her The Enchanted Chocolate Pot (and it's sequels) with co-author Caroline Stevemer quite well but I've never really looked up her other works. So it was a combination of pleasant surprise and slight embarrassment when I found out she had another fantasy series currently going, although the fact it was a few years old already meant that at least I didn't have any trouble getting it from the library.

Thirteenth Child by Patricia C Wrede

If Eff's brother is the child every family dreams of having, the seventh son of a seventh son, she's the one they all fear, the thirteenth child and destined for nothing but evil tendencies. Frustrated by their friend's and families attitudes, especially when they try to get Eff arrested before she's even ten, the family packs up and moves out into the wilderness near the great magical barrier that separates the wild magic from the rest of the civilized continent where nobody knows them. It's an interesting place to grow up and Eff certainly isn't unloved yet it's hard to feel happy when you're constantly scared of yourself.

I really enjoyed this book from start to finish and liked nearly every aspect of it. Eff' fears of turning out evil (which, as a reader you know is bunk) are presents in it such a way that it’s completely understandable why she would believe it as a kid and I liked how the characters close to her grew up realistically as well. I often have trouble with books that cover a large period of time, this one covers about ten years, but I felt like the pacing was just fine, both as the story flowed from start to finish and in terms of how the various events in Eff’s life were spaced out. Sometimes I read a book and go "wow, this character had so many important, life altering events which left them greatly changed and all within a week, how do you even process and move through all of that?!" Here Eff's change is much slower and more subtle and is one of the many ways Wrede keeps the story grounded despite having a completely magical basis/mover for the plot.

I also really liked the setting, it’s clearly based on our world yet it doesn’t feel like Wrede arbitrarily replaced a few things with magic and called it a day, it truly felt both familiar and alien. The story is set in the mid 1800s, in a landscape that clearly has the same general shape and landmarks as North America and has had a number of similar historical events 9(the founding fathers and the Civil War are mentioned), and I was impressed that it avoided what’s usually a large pitfall for historical novels, how do you deal with the racism that was present in America at that time? It’s too easy to ignore it, by having your story filled with just white characters, and easy to gloss over it as well, worse is the people who say “well that’s how it was at the time so I’m just going to go ahead and have all my characters be racist and never think about it once!” There are unkind characters in the story but Wrede manages to frame it in such a way that the story never endorses racism and Eff herself doesn’t have any prejudices like that. The conflict between those who use magic and those who don’t also didn’t feel like a stand in for a racism argument which I must admit I was a bit worried about when it was introduced but yet again Wrede shows that she can write a more nuanced story than that.

 All of that said, I do hope there are Native American (well, the equivalent of which) in the next book, I can’t recall any which means that there either weren’t any period (which is a bad move considering the characters are out in the Midwest) or they were so minor I can’t remember (still a bad call). The magic user vs we-don’t-use-magic argument did feel a bit silly at times though, I feel like Wrede was trying to create an equivalent of the Amish, substituting magic for technology there, except it just doesn’t quite make sense. That might have been the point, that trying to live in an area that's teeming with wild, magical animals without magic is crazy, if you’re trying to portray characters as not-crazy they need to be able to make their point in a way that the reader can understand. This really stood out to me since the story uses magic to show how wide their world is (the characters study magic that is from alternate England, Africa, and China and there's even a bit of dismissal from some of the side characters for studying the African and Chinese magic) and, given what turns out to be the climax of this story, it felt weird that the story, not the characters but the actual story, would have two such distinctive tones.

Regardless of that, I really did enjoy this and I'm sorry that I didn't get around to finding this series earlier. I'm giving this book a 3.5 out of 5 and should have a review of the next book up fairly soon, I've actually already read it since there's such a long gap between when I read these books and when I'm getting these reviews up (but I did make sure to write the backbone of this review before I read this one so don't worry about that).

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