No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Thursday, June 04, 2009

#39: Thirteenth Child -- Patricia Wrede

We'd studied the animals of the North Plains Territories in natural history in school. They were divided into two sorts, the ordinary and the magical. The ordinary ones were things like mammoths and dire wolves and saber cats and terror birds and the magical ones were steam dragons and Columbian sphinxes and spectral bears and swarming weasels, and all of them were deadly dangerous, magical or not. And those were just the plains animals; there were other things just as bad in the northern forests, and no Great Barrier magic to keep them off, either. (p. 68)


Thirteenth Child is the first in a new trilogy, Frontier Magic. It's told from the viewpoint of Eff (short for Francine), the thirteenth child in a large family, and the elder twin of her brother Lan -- a "double-seventh" (seventh son of a seventh son) to whom magic comes naturally, powerfully and in unexpected ways.

The thirteenth child, on the other hand, is regarded as unlucky, sure to bring doom and badness on herself and everyone around her. From an early age Eff is victimised by cousins, aunts and uncles. Eventually, her parents decide to move out West, away from the rest of the extended family, to make a new start.

Quite aside from the everyday use and acceptance of magic, this is an Earth unlike our own. Columbia has been settled by emigrants from the Old Continent, Avropa -- "Albion, Gaul, Prussia". (Hard to say when the Roman Empire fell, but it did exist and did plunge Avropa, at least, into a kind of Dark Age.) Byzantium endured until at least the early 1700s. Socrates, Plato and Pythagoras were magicians as well as philosophers. Benjamin Franklin was a double-seventh son.

Columbia (also referred to as the United States) is governed by an Assembly, of which the first three Presidents were Washington, Adams, Jefferson, and the next two weren't Madison and Monroe. The Secession War in 1838 was won by the colonists. Before that, Aphrikans were traded as slaves, but slavery was abolished with the help of people from the Aphrikan colonies in South Columbia. By Eff's time people of Aphrikan descent don't seem to be subject to racial discrimination. What year is it? Hard to say. There are railways, universities, policemen in uniform, grain mills. And there is a magical Great Barrier, near the Mammoth River, that protects the settlers to the east from the dangerous wildlife to the west.

Apart from the wildlife -- both magical and 'natural', sphinxes and saber-tooths, but seemingly united in a desire to attack humans -- Columbia was unpopulated until the colonists came. (The wildlife, incidentally, is not endemic to Columbia: there are references to nests of dragons in Ashia and Avropa, wiped out by magic. Only magic is regarded as a reliable protection against the 'monsters', though the Rationalists are founding well-fortified settlements where the use of magic is forbidden.) None of the expeditions bound for the Pacific Coast have returned: out of fifteen parties, only three men made it back, all mad. Lewis and Clark's 1804 expedition vanished, though traces of their journey have been found.

This novel has attracted a great deal of criticism for its omission of the Native Americans: it would be dishonest to pretend that I wasn't aware of the discussion, or that I didn't read the novel with that and other criticisms in mind.

So:

I'm not wholly convinced by the absence of the Native Americans. True, the western part of Columbia is inhabited by dangerous beasts. True, nobody ever comes back sane from beyond the Rockies. But there's something out West that scares even steam dragons. There's a strong smell of smoke on the wind. And there's something changing the natural balance, with attacks on settlements increasing and strange new creatures appearing and multiplying. I wonder if the Native Americans are simply not visible to the settlers. They don't have our world as a yardstick: they don't expect to see people living here amid the monsters. Given that this is the first book of three, I'm keeping an open mind on the subject and waiting to see what Wrede presents in the next two books.

A certain degree of vagueness in the worldbuilding is to be expected in the earlier part of the book, when Eff is a small child and doesn't seem to think much about the wider world -- at least not in terms of her place, her people's place, in it. Later, though, I'd have liked more context: don't they teach them history and geography in that school, as well as magic?

Eff, though, is a very self-centred narrator. She's caught up in her own miserable secret, in the fear of being discovered and ostracised as a thirteenth child. At one point early on, with a sibling ill, she wonders if Sharl died then maybe I wouldn't be a thirteenth child any more. Then I ... wondered if I was really as evil as Uncle Earn said, to have such thoughts. (p. 42) She's also utterly convinced that she'll 'go bad', though she's not entirely sure when this is due to happen. And as she enters adolescence, her magic begins to manifest in ways she can't control and is afraid to accept.

Eff is beginning to come to terms with her own magic -- quite different from her beloved brother's -- by the end of the book. There are three systems of magic in use: Aphrikan, Avropan and Hijero-Cathayan. Eff and her brother are instructed in Avropan magic at school (standard fourth grade syllabus) and, along with rather fewer other children, in Aphrikan magic by their teacher Miss Ochiba. The Aphrikan tradition is quite different to the strictures of the Avropan system. It teaches them to use their world-sense, to seeing different aspects of a thing and not to judge by first impressions. When Eff is finally confident and motivated enough to use her own magic instead of repressing it for fear of hurting others, she's doing something new, something that is a mix of traditions. "You're Columbian born and bred," Wash Morris tells her. The American Columbian melting-pot! I suspect that this new 'Frontier Magic' will become the focus of the trilogy -- perhaps there are additional ingredients yet to be added to the blend.

I'm not altogether satisfied with the world-building, though it'd be hard to shoe-horn sufficient detail into the viewpoint of the young, repressed, self-centred Eff. I'd like to know about religion in this world: there's Christmas, and churches with bells, but no mention of God or Christ or prayer. There's nothing about communication with the Old Continent, on personal or societal levels. (No Parisian fashions here.) Has anyone got around to exploring Australia and New Zealand?

Thirteenth Child feels very much the first part of a longer story, with many sub-plots left hanging and much unexplained. I trust Wrede to explain it all. I hope she won't disappoint.

A couple of observations on my position regarding the controversy this book has sparked:
- I suspect that, as a European, there is a whole dimension to this book that I don't relate to in the same way as an American. Not better, not worse: different, in the way that an American reviewer might miss class-related ambience in a British novel.
- I don't believe any alternate-history situation is unacceptable, or should not be written.

I welcome civilised debate: ad hominem attacks -- actually, attacks of any sort, as opposed to discussion -- will be deleted or frozen.

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