Back up, kids. I’m weighing in.
Proper credit to the folks who dream big. Even if they fail, they fail brilliantly, wrapped tightly within the confines of their meticulously constructed little worlds. When I got my copy of Thirteen Child I was told by two similar people two very different things. Friend #1 said: It’s brilliant. It’s like nothing you’ve read before. If you haven’t read it, start. Friend #2 said: It’s dull. Nothing happens. Don’t waste your time. And as I am a fan of divisive books, I plunged right in. They’ve been describing this book as The Little House on the Prairie meets Harry Potter. I’d call it the Alvin Maker books meet Monster Blood Tattoo. However you choose to describe it, Wrede has woven a complex, thoughtful world. One that is not without its issues, but may be worth a visit just the same.
Eff was trouble from the moment she was born. That’s what her relatives would have you believe anyway. Her twin brother Lan is the seventh son of a seventh son, and that’s a good thing. But Eff is a thirteenth child, which as "everybody" knows means that she’ll be turning evil one of these days. Eff’s willing to believe it herself, but fortunately an opportunity comes up that allows her to leave the world of whispers and false accusations. Her father has accepted a commission to work at a college in the west. Once there, Eff learns that while she may not be powerful in the same way as her twin, she has access to magic and learning of an entirely different sort. And when a crises comes up that traps her nearest and dearest, Eff must draw upon new strength to solve the problem.
World building. That’s the two-word phrase that circles this book like moths to a fluorescent bulb. Sometimes it feels like you can’t find a review out there that doesn’t use the term at some point. World building. It sounds like an arduous process, don’t you think? The sheer construction of a world. If God did it in six to seven days then heaven only knows how long this took Wrede. And the sheer amount of thought that has gone into this book can leave you reeling. The explanation about how after the Secession War (which ended in 1838) the Assembly created colleges in the homestead areas to teach agriculture and engineering and Latin, law, and magic? That’s clever. Or a sect of people who see magic as enabling, and living without it as healthy and whole. Smart stuff.
The downside of world building is speed. Wrede isn’t going to begin this book with a slam bang action sequence or even much in the way of any conflict aside from the natural born suspicions of Eff and a brief confrontation between her family and her uncle’s. Instead, the story rolls out with the details, thoughts, and feelings of another age. I found I liked reading this book because of the amount of depth Wrede poured into it, but I could see a lot of kids giving up a couple chapters in. Eff, for her part, often ponders things for entire days before acting on them. This isn’t to say that there aren’t kids out there that won’t get into it. But it’s a contemplative book. And for some, a dull process until the excitement at the end.
The whole "Little House meets Harry Potter" idea is cute, but that’s not what I thought of as I read through this book. To my mind this book reminded me of nothing so much as the Monster Blood Tattoo series by D.M. Cornish, right now to the bone. Consider the similarities. In this story humans are trying to make lives for themselves but are constantly fighting magical beasts that destroy and devour them. In Monster Blood Tattoo humans are trying to live their lives only to be constantly fighting magical beasts that destroy and, occasionally, devour them. Both books are about frontiers (American vs. a disguised Australian outback). Both involve quite a bit of world building. The difference is in the details. When I told my Thirteenth Child disliking friend about these similarities her point was that this book was much slower than Cornish’s texts. There is also the fact that in Cornish’s world, the monsters speak. They become stand-ins for the Aborigines. An "other" that humans hurt and abuse because they refuse to learn anything about them (my theory). In Thirteenth Child, though, Wrede has taken a very different tactic. While she could have gone the old natives-as-beasts route, she has chosen a different way of handling the situation. Monster Blood Tattoo is about colonization. Thirteenth Child? Manifest destiny.
Which brings up the whole issue of race. Now full credit where credit is due, Ms. Wrede has two three-dimensional people of color in this book, and that’s great. One of them, Mr. Wash Morris is a kind of Lee Scoresby character. The kind of rough-hewn man of the world that a girl-child like Eff/Lyra is going to instantly trust. A stand-in father figure, perhaps. Miss Ochiba is a little more difficult to define. With race you never want the minority to be the all-knowing wise person who teaches the white people a little more about themselves. Miss Ochiba comes dangerously close to that description, but what saves her from stereotype is her wit, character, and the fact that she really doesn’t hand our heroine all her answers on a silver platter.
Then there is the issue of the American Indians. Which is to say, there aren’t any. I had a discussion with my husband about this fact and the two of us hammered it out. Wrede had a couple ways she could go with this. You can include the American Indians and then give them magic like everyone else in this world. Problem with that is the potential for offense. I mean, if Wrede doesn’t want her focus to be on the native population, then they’re going to be relegated to the sidelines. To be historically accurate they’d be at war with our heroine’s family too. And then there’d be the danger of learning their form of magic, how it’s not better than anyone else’s, etc. etc. etc. It could get all New Age spiritual on you. Alternatively, you don’t give them any magic and then there’s the question of why everyone else in the world has it EXCEPT for them. So Ms. Wrede removed them from the picture entirely. She didn’t make any of the beasts of the wild sentient either, so there’s no way of making a parallel between fighting beasts vs. fighting Indians. Is it a perfect situation? No, because now you’ve just gotten rid of an entire race. And people are going to get mad about this absence.
Finally: Seventh Son (also known as the Alvin Maker books) by Orson Scott Card. Forget any comparisons to any other books I’ve mentioned. The story and world that I kept flashing back to when I read this book was Card’s. Both his series and this one is concerned with seventh sons of seventh sons who live in an alternative frontier version of America where there is magic. History conforms to these new rules (as do place names). Card’s world makes magic out of old wives’ tales and hexes. Wrede actually teaches her magic in schoolhouses and universities. Card worked in American Indians, Wrede doesn’t, and so the two series makes for a fascinating compare and contrast.
While it’s sophisticated and (relatively) slow, there’s nothing in this book that’s inappropriate for the advanced 10-year-old. Even the one mention of out-of-wedlock sex is only obliquely referred to in terms of counting back the months from a child’s birth. And for the right reader (maybe the one who likes Seventh Son even) there are just so many little details to enjoy. Like the fact that Benjamin Franklin was a self-educated seventh son of a seventh son (not hard to believe when you look at how many siblings he had in real life). You can respect an author’s vision without necessarily loving it. But while I would have liked there to be just a touch more action and occurrences in Thirteenth Child I can respect that it’s a studied look at a new alternative history. Not a perfect one, certainly. But original.
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First off, can I say that I hate the term "fail"? I had to look it up when I read the critical reviews of this book, and as an internet word it is unusually annoying. Anyway, Tor.com is a good place to start if you want to look at the controversy surrounding Wrede’s newest work. From there you should be able to follow commenters’ links to any number of similarly upset reviews like this one. Fellow fantasy author R.J. Anderson’s post was the first that I’d heard of it. But basically I was unaware of the firestorm surrounding this book when I decided to review it. They’re calling it MammothFail (a pun on the size of the "fail" and the fact that the book has no Indians but does have mammoths). I feel quite surprised that I missed all this for so long, but I guess it’s been contained primarily within the online science fiction community until now. The flame wars have shot up left and right. It’s a little scary.
- In contrast Patricia Wrede’s blog is a veritable ocean of calm.