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An exercise in thirteens....

A week or two ago I finally got hold of a copy of Patricia Wrede’s Thirteenth Child, the release of which served as the catalyst for major pyrotechnics around the blogosphere some months back.  The following is not a discussion of the pyrotechnics; rather, it’s a review of and commentary on the book as written.

Thirteenth Child, billed as “book one” of Frontier Magic, introduces us to Eff (formally, Francine, though that name is used only rarely in the text), the daughter of a wizard-scholar in an expanding pre-industrial society where magic is a strong and entrenched presence.  The story opens when she’s about five years old and continues through her eighteenth birthday, and takes place mostly in Mill City, a town on the western border of the society’s settled lands where Eff’s father has been invited to join the faculty of the local college.  Beyond Mill City, the land is distinctly unsettled; a powerful magical Barrier keeps mammoths, steam dragons, and other dangerous flora and fauna from intruding eastward into civilized territory.  A few scouts range through the lands beyond the Barrier, and handfuls of ambitious settlers have begun carefully circumscribed efforts to settle pockets of the wilderness, but for the most part the wild lands are still just that: wild and mostly unexplored.

In any event, we don’t see much of the unsettled country until the last few chapters.  The first-person narrative concentrates instead on Eff’s experiences – her schooling, friendships, and family life.  Tradition says that Eff’s twin brother Lan, seventh son of a seventh son, has inherited great magical gifts; it also claims that Eff is forever cursed to be a source of ill luck and a danger to all around her.  Eff takes this superstition to heart very early on, becoming an introspective girl whose talents prove elusive and uncertain.  She watches older siblings marry and establish households, takes on growing domestic responsibilities, and describes her father’s increasing involvement in local political and magical affairs as new groups of settlers attempt to push civilization’s borders westward past the Barrier. And while Lan receives tutoring calculated to further his status as a magical prodigy, Eff’s study of magic takes a quieter, more contemplative course, though their paths eventually converge in the volume’s climax.

The breadth of material in Thirteenth Child makes it somewhat difficult to classify.  On one level it’s a straightforward coming-of-age story with a liberal dash of family drama.  On another, it’s a fascinating and thoughtful exploration of magical theory from both practical and philosophical perspectives.  And there’s a thread of pure science-fictional speculation that arises late in the tale, as our heroes attempt to deal with a sudden influx of magic-seeking vermin.

However, one label that definitely doesn’t apply to the book is that of “alternate history”.  Wrede’s naming conventions suggest that her characters occupy a rough analog of nineteenth-century North America, but the place names – even a handful of throwaway references to recognizable historical figures – are essentially irrelevant to the story.  More to the point, where serious alternate history extrapolates its imaginary milieu from a single specific point of divergence, Wrede’s invented landscape incorporates at least three separate, widely separated departures from Earth history as we know it.  First, there’s the introduction of magic as a natural force.  In Wrede’s world, magic is not merely a human discipline; it’s an integral part of Earth’s ecosystem and has shaped the evolution of all manner of animals and plants.  Second, there’s the much-criticized absence of an aboriginal human population on Wrede’s continent of “North Columbia”.  Third, however, brief passages in Eff’s narrative refer to presidents Washington, Adams, and Jefferson (followed by several others, all unfamiliar), to a “Father Franklin” (presumably Benjamin), and to a Lewis & Clark expedition mysteriously swallowed up by the western wilderness.

Despite the specificity of these last references, it’s impossible to backtrail any sort of coherent political history from the slim details readers are given.  Wrede and Eff entirely omit any mention of numbered years, and the internal clues are contradictory.  There are trains, and there’s been a War of Secession (though who was seceding from what is never precisely specified), both of which suggest late 19th-century dating, but the population density and general level of household technology are more consistent with the early to mid-1800s – as is Mill City’s status as jumping-off point for western colonization.  Further complicating the matter are numerous oblique references to other continents and cultures, using linguistically distinctive names and tantalizing context that imply notable divergences between civilization in Eff’s world and our own.  Add in the overtly magical ecosystem and its evident impact on prehistoric planetary development, and the close parallels between North Columbian and traditional American history become flat-out impossible on a logical level.  So while the book may read like a tale of post-colonial America, it’s really more accurate to consider the setting as wholly invented rather than quasi-historical.

On the other hand, the argument that the book isn’t really “frontier fantasy” is at least partially legitimate.  As noted, most of the action takes place in Mill City – and Mill City is not merely a city, but a college town.  As such, it functions specifically as an outpost and instrument of civilization, and it’s explicitly separated from the true frontier by the Barrier.  Only when Eff travels past the Barrier do we begin to explore that frontier in earnest.  But the “frontier fantasy” criticism is also problematic.  In particular, it’s precisely the same class of objection as the complaint that the book isn’t good alternate history – an attempt to fit the story into an externally defined mold that the author may or may not have intended for it to occupy.

More significantly, there’s the fact that Thirteenth Child is explicitly billed as “Book One” of a multi-volume story – and that the shape of that overall story is far from clear at this point.  Structurally speaking, the book is a very odd series opener.  Though marketed as a YA novel, it covers Eff’s entire childhood (or at least, and perhaps not coincidentally, thirteen years' worth of it) and concludes as she reaches adult status both legally and emotionally, thereby leaving little apparent room for YA-targeted direct sequels. If subsequent volumes continue to focus closely on Eff and her maturation, we might expect a trilogy at most.  Alternately, though, Wrede may be laying groundwork in this volume for a longer series of true frontier-exploration tales – or the sequels may feature other protagonists entirely, either from among Eff’s contemporaries or drawn from subsequent generations.  It’s simply too early to tell where the series is going, and therefore too early to discern this first volume’s place in Wrede’s larger design.  As a self-contained work, it’s an appealing if deliberately paced story about a character I found sympathetic and intriguing, and by that standard has much in common with Wrede’s prior work.

Confucius Say....

"I am totally a folklore pirate. Ahoy, mateys! Slow down your fairy tale and prepare to be boarded!"

-- Seanan McGuire

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