The Thirteenth Child by Patricia C. Wrede

January 20, 2010

Scholastic, 2009

Finished: January 14, 2010

Source: library browsing

Genre:  YA or J alternate history frontier fantasy

On the Scales: welterweight

Wrede’s strength is her mechanics.  She doesn’t write the kind of fantasy you immerse yourself in.  She writes books like intricately constructed models with working parts.  You admire them from above.  Like the itsy-bitsy tin people inhabiting a model castle, her characters–though painted with a miniaturist’s care–are not the point.  The point is the magic.  Wrede’s adeptness in describing her out-of-thin-air concepts of magic-working with absolute conviction and consistency has found a happy home in this slice of alternate 19th century American history.  I don’t like it, but I think it’s pretty good.

Usually I would say that if young adult or children’s book is good, and written on themes that aren’t exclusively of interest to children, a reader of any age should have as much chance of enjoying it.  It’s true some grown people are handicapped with a poverty of imagination that makes them unable to identify with young characters–but those unfortunates aside: if a book has universal themes and yet bores adults, that means it’s not a well-crafted novel.

Children have a higher tolerance for bad novels.  Not because they’re less critical than adults; they’ve simply read less and experienced less.  That is why there is so much crap children’s/YA literature, and so many kids liking it just fine.  Their imaginations are in top condition at exactly the time in life when every tired convention is still new to them, and their sense of language is still mostly that of a vehicle to take them quickly as possible where they want to go!

Wrede is an exception.  She writes well, her themes are interesting enough, but I can’t enjoy her books as an adult.  I didn’t discover her Dealing With Dragons trilogy until I was well into my teens, and even then I found them absolutely hilarious.  When I tried to read them in my twenties, they were dull.  The characters didn’t engage me at all.  Not able to believe what had happened to me (I still couldn’t blame the books), I dipped into one of her Regency-ladies-with-magic things.  My impression was of a skim-milk sugarless smoothie made by putting Georgette Heyer, Joan Aiken, and Phillip Pullman in a blender.  I didn’t try her again until The Thirteen Child jumped off the shelf.

Now I think I get it.  Wrede taps into one of the few forms of literature that really is just for kids.  They have a longer attention span for it, and their critical faculties are more responsive to it: the clockwork toy.  The dollhouse.  The exquisite model.  You still remember, don’t you, your delight in the miniature?  The satisfaction when something was worked out to the tiniest detail?  It didn’t matter if the detail was symbolic.  It didn’t matter that the little people were frozen in one position, feet welded to a little metal surfboard that kept them from falling over–they looked just right.

Wrede’s books look just right.  And bully for her for that.  You can’t escape the knowledge of her presence in them as a craftswoman any more than you can forget someone glued together the foam core models in a museum.  Most kids won’t mind at all.  In the Dealing with Dragons books, the world she crafted was a fractured fairy tale-esque satire of traditional quest fantasy.  Here, it features the thirteenth child of a magic professor at a new land grant university, telling the story of her coming of age on the edge of the frontier, in a town like Kansas City.

The execution of the empowerment theme (also somewhat feminist) is blatant and unsurprising.  With a magical prodigy of a seventh-son-of-a-seventh-son for a twin brother, Eff the narrator takes her own unlucky status as a thirteenth child to heart after being made the family scapegoat by her nasty cousins and uncle.  Moving to a frontier town by the great magical barrier (something like the boundary of the Pale, with destructive magical creatures like dragons on the other side) ought to be a fresh start for her–especially with the help of her multiculturally aware schoolmarm–but she’s internalized too much of her childhood guilt.  She has to break free of her low self-esteem before she comes to her power.  Eff describes the whole process (17 years in one short book) in a firm, didactic voice that never draws me into her struggle.

The historical research feels solid.  The period atmosphere is authentic, but over-crowded.  Eff makes sure to drop details that would be so commonplace to someone living in her world, most people wouldn’t bother to mention them.  The period slang, diction, and western idiom are nicely on target, but would be far more convincing if they were toned down a notch!  The paint on the model is shiny and bright.  The characters run in their tracks.

Wrede must take justified pleasure in the spit-and-polish she’s given her model world, but even more in the schools of magic she describes:  the Avrupan, the Hijero-Cathayan, the Aphrikan.  I enjoyed that part, just as I enjoyed the visual and tactile descriptions of magic as invisible threads in the Dealing With Dragons books.  Here the analogy is philosophy.  The Avrupan is the academic European model, delicate and precise like gear-works–Greek thought and western science.  It is the magic of Eff’s father, her brother.  Eff ends up finding her own power another way, freed from the traditions of the old world, poised on the frontier.

The book begs a sequel.  I probably won’t read it, though I’ve been known to be weak about these things in the past.  I don’t care enough about Eff to want to follow her beyond the Great Barrier with her newfound magic and probable sidekick.  I would rather have gone to college with her brother and learned some Avruptan magic myself, met some shady magicians, or really gone anywhere in her world where the unexpected was not so expected by the time it finally arrived.


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