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Thirteenth Child

My second book for the Once Upon a Time VIII reading challenge is Thirteenth Child by Patricia Wrede.

Thirteenth Child



Eff (short for Francine) Rothmer is a young girl living in the town of Helvan Shores, somewhere in the east of an alternate universe USA. She is one of a large family, a twin in fact, a little older than her brother, Lan. The unusual fact about Eff is that she is a thirteenth child, and the unusual fact about Lan is that he is the seventh son of a seventh son. This means that while Lan is celebrated as a potentially powerful practicioner of magic and very lucky to be around, Eff is feared as someone who will bring bad luck to her family and to people who come into contact with her. Luckily, her immediate family do not fear or depise her but her huge count of uncles, aunts, cousins and so forth do, and treat her accordingly. Life for Eff is difficult.

Things come to a head and Eff's parents decide it's time to move the family elsewhere. Her father is offered a post at a school of magic on the frontier, a place where a magical 'divide' protects new settlers from the wilderness and the unusual and dangerous beasts that live there. Magicians are needed to help keep the spells that keep people safe, in place. Here Eff discovers what it is to live without prejudice. No one knows she's a thirteenth child as a number of her siblings have married or stayed behind for their education. Lan's status is known though and and for him life is now all about special lessons and special treatment: Eff realises they're drifting apart.

Eff's challenge is to make a life for herself in this strange place. This she does, making new friends and doing her best at learning magic herself. But she can't forget the fact that she is meant to grow up to be evil. The knowledge lives inside her like a virus and means she has a secret she has to keep at all costs. The trouble with keeping secrets is that the effort required eventually takes its toll...

I didn't realise when I started to read this book that there was some kind of problem with it. I read it, found it to be quite enjoyable, although taking rather a long time to really get going and possibly never really living up to my expectations. To tell the truth it's more of a coming-of-age story than anything else and as such it wasn't a bad read. But, if reading for high fantasy, loads of magical happenings and weird and unusual animals, as is hinted at in the synopsis, then the reader might be disappointed. It felt more like an introduction to be honest. For my liking there just wasn't enough of a fantasy element.

What we did have here was a real family. Not an idealised one where everyone is nice to each other but a living breathing entity where people argue, are spoilt, have favourites, misbehave, but still stick together regardless. A mother who lays down the law, worries about her children, is sometimes unreasonable. A father who's so busy with his work that sometimes the family take second place. Eff herself is a very rounded character, trying to do her best despite the 'thirteenth child' tag that is forced upon her from very early in her life. She doesn't do a lot of complainiing - I thought it wouldn't have harmed if she had done a bit more - but it's clear from the start that this is quite an unequal society. Girls are allowed education, which is something, but the boys have more freedom in just about every aspect of life. I thought the author did a good job of depicting the female 'guilt' complex, Eff is a very deep thinking girl and shoulders a lot of guilt which no one bothers to relieve her of and nor do they understand why she feels that way, especially her friends who are boys. It's quite sad.

So, what is the problem I mentioned earlier? Well, although this is a fantasy tale it is set loosely during the American pioneering days of the 1800s. And thus it seems that some people expected there to Native Americans in it, and there are none. I think the author explained it by saying that they never crossed the land bridge and thus didn't spread into North America in her universe. This caused her to be accused of racism and there were flame wars on Twitter and all that kind of thing. A real can of worms. I don't plan to get into something that happened 5 years ago, the book is what it is, and I'm not sure accusing an author of racism because she ommitted something you think should be there is particularly fair.

The decision I have to make is whether to read on in this series based on this first book. It didn't quite live up to my expectations but there are intriguing ideas and Eff's plans for her future excite me. Perhaps future books supply more of what this book promised. My library doesn't have the second book, Across the Great Barrier, so I would have to think it worth buying. Goodread reviews seem to be split between 'this is better than book 1' and 'still too much internalising'. I'll have to think about it as I'm trying not to buy too many books at the moment and those I do buy I've decided I must really want for a good reason. Why is nothing ever simple?

Comments

Oh, interesting. I couldn't quite decide if I fancy reading it or not, from your description, so I nipped over to find a preview version of it - and it does sound rather readable, and Eff rather likeable. I've always liked books that involve large chaotic families, too. Not only is it not available through my library, but I couldn't find it on Amazon.co.uk either - oh, but I see it's on Bookdepository... (oh and in Foyles too, and cheaper... *g*) Sorry, I'm rambling now!

Interesting about the author missing Native Americans from the continent entirely - presumably they've been supplanted by the magical creatures etc? Is there any indication whether the magic is spread over the whole world, or if it's just native to America (you know, kind of in lieu)? I can imagine it would have been less racist and more thoughtless (which is just as bad, perhaps, and I can see how it would be synonymous in some eyes too - probably including mine, cos it is indeed a fine line...)

All sounds a bit intriguing, really! *g*
Eff is quite interesting and the book is written in the first person and as I like that it did make it more enjoyable for me personally. In that respect it was rather like Among Others in that it was teenager struggling to come to terms with magic. Finding a place for herself in the world etc. Two good books to read back-to-back really to see how two different authors cover the issue.

Apparently when this flame war was going on she said something to this effect:

"I don't like the Native Americans as savages stereo-type, but neither do I like the current romanticizing of them either so I'm eliminating the problem by taking them out."

I grabbed the quote from Goodreads where there are some interesting comments on the book:

https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/7170273-thirteenth-child

Although thinking on it, if you plan to read the book you might not want to see spoilers...

I wondered if the beasts were in place of the Native population too but it's hard to tell as they didn't appear all that much.

Yes, the magic is all over the world but there are different kinds for different continents and they differ from each other. Thus you got 'Aphrikan' and several others the exact names of which I can't remember but they covered Europe I think, and Asia and so on. Fascinating concept.

If you think you might want to read it you can have mine. I don't think I'll be wanting to reread so let me know and I'll pop it in the post. Not sure if the address I have for you is current though and I'm wary of writing any of it here. Drop me an email.
You're right - I may well read this book, and so will avoid too many spoilers!

Interesting quote from the author, and I can see how that might be a thing to think, but... I can also see even more that it's kind of a careless thing. It's really hard to deal with this issue, so I'm just going to pretend it didn't exist in the first place is kind of... well, it's kind of where a good 99% of the problems in the world come from. If that 99% of people would think about stuff and deal with it instead, then maybe we might actually change it... But I'm pretty sure that you already know that, so I'm just going to hush. *g*

It does sound like an interesting set of ideas though... I thought you'd got your copy from the library actually - if you're sure you won't want it again (well, I can send it back, too *g*) then I'd love to borrow it from you - thank you! Will email indeed!
I think 'careless' is probably spot-on. Careless and possibly lazy. I understand... it's one hell of a daunting issue to take on, but why create a universe that close to reality if you're not then going explore it honestly? She could easily have made it another universe, different enough that no one would have kicked up a fuss. I rather suspect she underestimated the size of the fuss people would make.

P always says that 95% of the population is as thick as two shorts planks. I don't think they are at all, I think they've just not learnt to 'think' properly, never been encouraged to or just too lazy. I don't know. Perhaps families don't talk these days, about things that matter. Ours does which probably explains why our grand-daughter came top of the class in RE. Coming from an entirely athiest family we thought that was hysterical. Turns out the teacher is impressed with her ability to 'think' clearly about issues and make good sound arguments on her opinions. And all because we talk. I of course am rather fascinated by the results of all this nattering. *g*
It does sound odd for an author to specifically set her story in the North American frontier, but not include the Indian tribes because that whole subject puts her off. So the Indians just "never crossed the land bridge from Asia?" Not for any particular reason, but because she didn't want to deal with it.

That sounds like lazy writing to me. When the internal logic is inconsistent, it's annoying and makes me hold a writer's talent cheap. I usually wish I could sue and get back the time that I spent reading such a book.
I think it's lazy writing too rather than any intentional slight. I think the author totally underestimated the impact the book would make and was probably horrified when it all blew up.