Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Review of Thirteenth Child by Patricia C. Wrede

Thirteenth Child (Book One: Frontier Magic)
by Patricia C. Wrede
3 Scribbles

This highly original fantasy re-imagines the evolution of the United States. In this world, thirteenth children like Eff are destined to bring only bad things to their communities and are persecuted, whereas seventh sons of seventh sons, like Eff’s twin Lan, are revered. Why? Magic is critical to the survival of the pioneers out west and the future of America, and magic is directly tied to birth order. So when Eff’s family moves to the frontier, she is relieved to have a fresh beginning, but for how long?

The best part of this tale is the re-imagining of the frontier America...and it’s also the worst part of the tale.  I enjoyed seeing how Wrede’s frontier included magical creatures like steam dragons and mammoth—a very cool twist on American history. I found it incredibly clever that magic was used to protect settlers while they developed the land for farming. I even enjoyed the blending of actual American history with fictional occurrences; for instance, the alteration of the names of American Presidents after Thomas Jefferson was comical.  Yet, despite this awesome alternative American history, I felt as if it might have been better if Eff’s world was another country not unlike America, but on a completely different planet. Why? I know I’m not the only reviewer to mention this, but there were no Native Americans at all in the story. None. It seems absolutely morally irresponsible to exclude a major part of the American population, even if it is a re-imagining. If I were a Native American reading this novel, I’m pretty sure I would take offense to being left out.  If I were an African American person, I’m not sure I’d like reading this novel and not knowing why the historical issue of slavery is not addressed. It is as if every “uncomfortable” issue in America’s history is simply ignored, and not only does that bother me, but it takes away from the richness of the plot. It’s as if Wrede replaces diverse peoples with three diverse magical theories, Aphrikan (African) Avrupan (European), and Hijero-Cathayan (Asian/Hispanic).  Is it too much to hope that future novels in the series might remedy this problem?

The story has also been criticized for its abundance of characters, but I didn’t feel the characters were too many or too few. Those characters critical to the story were very well-developed, like Eff, Lan, William, father, and Eff’s bossy sister, Rini. Readers from large families or those who know large families understand that when so many children are born, there is a feeling of disconnect between the younger and older children. This feeling of distance is relayed to the reader through a brief mentioning of the older children who have moved on with their lives, without delving into their persons. I really enjoyed the characters of Miss Ochiba and “Wash” the traveling magician. What I really didn’t like was that Miss Ochiba’s past wasn’t touched upon overmuch, and she is written out of the story just when the reader is getting to enjoy her. There is clearly a connection between Miss Ochiba and Wash, and this is hinted at but never explained. Hopefully, this connection will be expounded upon in the second book in the series and Miss Ochiba will make a comeback. Although I imagine it is too much to hope the author will discuss their history in connection with slavery—since slavery is a horrible yet undeniable fact of American history.

Some have also said that this novel does not have a plot. I disagree. The plot is the coming-of-age of a frontier magician girl. What the story lacks is an abundance of conflict, and the opportunities for conflict are overlooked. Readers thrive on conflict, of course, and conflict builds interest in the story. For instance, at the onset of the novel it is mentioned that Eff’s uncle advised she be “done away with.” The police are called when she is five years old to take her to prison. The doing away with (murder) of thirteenth children is touched upon but not labored over. I would have liked to have seen this savage practice illuminated more.  Is this killing or imprisoning of “Thirteens” a regularity? What does this say about the government? The citizenry? Instead of expounding on the issue, the author moves past it with little fanfare. What? Glaze over the murder of innocents? Also, the story takes place over an unusually long span, from the time Eff is 4-ish until she is 18, and many years are sort of skipped past with little discussion of Eff’s maturity or growth. At one point she spends an entire year in bed with rheumatic fever! Granted, such illnesses were a common issue at this time, but her illness stalls the story. Additionally, Eff is one of the few characters in a fictional work I have read about who has no friends to speak of (unless that fact is critical to the conflict). What sorts of conflicts could have arisen between classmates and friends in her new frontier home? Thus, the novel at times reads like chapter after chapter of back-story leading up to what eventually comes during the last few chapters—an actual problem to be resolved.

All of these issues combined lead to my 3 Scribble rating. However, I must say that I will be reading the next two novels in time, since I would like to see how the author takes the story and perhaps remedies some of the issues that exist here.  Readers of Westerns and historical fiction will enjoy this work. I’ve heard it said that it’s a nice blend of Harry Potter meets Laura Ingalls Wilder; I wouldn’t go to those extremes, but the flavor of both is certainly there.  Great for upper elementary and middle school readers alike!

Monday, February 3, 2014

Review of Ungifted by Gordon Korman

HarperCollins Publishers
by Gordon Korman
3 Scribbles

Donovan loves a good practical joke, especially at school; school is simply boring without mixing it up once in a while. But when Donovan accidentally-on-purpose destroys the school gym, he must go underground to protect his identity from the school’s superintendent, Dr. Schultz.  Laughter and hijinks ensue.

There is a lot to love in this fast-moving adventure, if the reader can get past the stereotypes. Korman portrays the kids at the gifted academy who hide Donovan as nothing short of cyborgs. They have the IQs (listed at the onset of every chapter) of quantum physicists but the social skills of a calculator. Sure, some gifted students may be a bit socially awkward, and some have concrete disabilities that challenge them in social settings, but the two aren’t mutually exclusive. Real gifted kids are just as quirky and adventuresome as “ungifted” kids. In fact, I think Chloe was the only gifted character who seemed realistic since she longs to be “un-isolated” from other, “un-gifted” students.

I did enjoy the plot turns. There were just enough to keep the reader guessing without making the story difficult to follow. It was fun to see how Donovan manages to dodge Dr. Schultz, the superintendent, time and time again, and to see the ironic reason behind the dog, Beatrice’s depression. I also liked the inclusion of Donovan’s older sister, Katie, in the story. She’s living with her family (and Donovan) while her husband fights in Afghanistan, and she is pregnant. Readers may sometimes forget that soldiers are still being deployed regularly and are still stationed abroad. Our country is at peace, but this is not peace-time.  I found it refreshing that the author so naturally incorporates this conflict into the plot and makes readers care—without hitting them over the head with it. I also like the key role Katie plays in the story.

I did feel one point was sort of ignored in the story. Donovan is notorious for dishonesty and theft—part of his charm. However, even though he grows and matures, I’m not sure the thievery is adequately resolved.  For example, what happens with the floor polisher? Did I miss it when this loose end was tied up? That being said, the book is an easy, fun and accessible read that many older elementary and middle school students will enjoy—so long as they don’t get too hung up on the stereotypes.  For an even more hilarious read by Gordon Korman, I’d recommend Schooled.