Patricia C. Wrede is one of my auto-buy authors. Based in Minnesota, she’s probably most well-known either for the Sorcery and Cecelia series of YA epistolary Regency-set fantasy novels co-authored with Caroline V. Stevermer, or for the quartet of YA books starting with Dealing with Dragons. Less well-known are her Lyra novels, set in a fantasy world during various eras and containing such obscure titles as Caught in Crystal, The Harp of Imach Thyssel, and The Raven Ring. She has also written two novels set in roughly the same world as the Sorcery and Cecelia books, Mairelon the Magician and Magician’s Ward, neither of which features any of the main characters from the YA series. Another obscure work of hers is Snow White and Rose Red, a contribution to the Fairy Tales series (like Pamela Dean’s Tam Lin).
The Thirteenth Child is set in an alternate universe, where North America wasn’t settled by Asians via the Bering Strait, and mammoths, dragons, and other various megafauna still roam most of the country. Eff Rothmer is the second-to-last child in her family — the thirteenth, to be precise — and the twin sister of Lan, who is the seventh son of a seventh son. He is considered particularly lucky and possessed of an amazing ability to do magic, and it was suggested to her parents by more than one relative that they should have drowned her at birth. When the twins are still young, the entire family moves out to Mill City, which is just on the edge of the frontier. Mr. Rothmer has gotten a job as a professor at the brand-new college there, and besides, it would be best to move somewhere where no one knows that Eff is the thirteenth child and Lan is a double-seven. Out there, they find all sorts of adventure — on both sides of the Great Barrier that keeps the rest of the country safe from the frightening flora and fauna that characterizes the wilderness.
I would be very much amiss if I didn’t mention that this novel has been a bit controversial recently because of its race issues. First of all, by not having the Asians settle North (or South) America (Columbia, in this book) via the Bering Strait (or boats or however), Ms. Wrede has essentially erased Native Americans/Indians/First People from history. Even if it’s a fantasy world, it is still being read by people in our world, and her choice interacts with the whole of American history and literature (where we have tried to erase the Native Americans time and time again). Second, the two non-white characters who show up over the course of the book are both Aphrikan (African, black), and they seem to have no other point in the book but to be Eff’s teachers.
I will absolutely give Ms. Wrede points back for including slavery and then having her characters fight it, albeit offstage; for having sympathetic non-white characters (I really liked Wash and Miss Ochiba, despite their limited roles); for having the characters who believe that Avrupean (European) magic is inherently superior be portrayed as bigoted; and for having a story that indicates, to me, that in the next volume, Eff will include an Hijero-Cathayan (Asian) magician as one of her teachers. I do think that it’s very possible that non-white people will show up in better roles in the next volume. Unfortunately, I can’t actually give her bonus points for something she hasn’t published yet.
The book is significantly more complex than it appears at first. Primarily, it’s a coming-of-age tale set in a land of frontier adventure, but on the second level, it’s a story about self-esteem. Eff’s has been decimated over the years by being the thirteenth child; she undergoes some awful abuse at the hands of her cousins and one uncle. Even out in Mill City (a Minneapolis/St. Paul analogue, by the way) she assumes that everything that goes wrong is her fault. Her brother Lan, on the other hand, has been told that he is the savior of the world since birth, and by the end, there are indications that this might be a problem. On another level, it’s about synthesis. Eff turns out to be significantly more talented at Aphrikan magic than she is at Avrupean magic, despite the fact that she is of Avrupean heritage. Although being the thirteenth child is unlucky in Avrupean superstitions, it isn’t so in the other cultures, and Eff attempts to absorb that information. Out in the frontier, especially on the other side of the Barrier, people are attempting to use both magical and non-magical means to defend themselves — something that those in the big cities of the East wouldn’t consider, generally.
Another interesting addition is the Society of Progressive Rationalists, who eschew the use of magic. I am somewhat perplexed, I admit, regarding magic in the world. Is everyone talented at magic? In which case, I do not understand how the Society of Progressive Rationalists manage to eschew it. It is indicated by more than one character that if they don’t use their magic, it will build up inside them until it explodes. If so, how do the Rationalists do it? It’s very possible that some of this will be addressed in a future volume. That aside, I did enjoy including them, and I thought it presented another interesting thread in Ms. Wrede’s tapestry.
I liked the characters. I thought Eff was a bit wallpaper-pasty until most of the way through the book, but she really redeemed herself about two-thirds of the way through. I loved the rest of her family — even Rennie, her bossy sister — and I was quite fond of William, the son of the other professor of magic at the school. His transformation from annoying only child to a young man was actually rather fascinating, and I watched it with many expectations of what would happen in the future. The Aphrikan characters, as I mentioned before, were great, and I definitely want to see more of both Wash and Miss Ochiba — plus her family members, who seem to be equally accomplished and fascinating — in future volumes.
I am in a position of privilege, in that I have the option of disregarding race most of the time (I’m white and middle-class). It’s very possible that I would have merely accepted this story at face value without having read about it on the internet beforehand. Unfortunately, it’s not so much about the merit of the book — which is not so bad; aside from the race issues I’d give it 4/5 stars — but what the book unwittingly does — specifically, the erasure of Native Americans from American history via the lack of Asian discovery of the Americas. If one does read the book, and recommend it to YAs, I would consider it in tandem with Sherman Alexie’s The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, or other such work. Another option would be a large amount of considered, rational discussion. Again, it’s very possible that future volumes could redeem this book, but I can’t count on that until they’re published. Ms. Wrede is still on my auto-buy list, but I’m going to refrain from giving this book a conclusive number of stars as I am uncomfortable with doing so.