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