Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Review: The Thirteenth Child

The Thirteenth Child
Patricia C. Wrede
2009; Scholastic; 978-0-545-03342-8 (hardcover)

Summary: In a version of 19th century America that is infused with magic, Eff is afraid of what she's capable of. Eff, you see, is a thirteenth child. Her twin brother Lan, the seventh son of a seventh son, is destined to be a great, powerful magician. But a thirteenth child will turn evil, spreading darkness and despair: a fact that Eff's extended family won't let her forget. Rescued by a move out West with her parents and siblings, Eff grows up and tries to control her magic while finding her place.

Three Things to Know About The Thirteenth Child

#1: Self-fulfilling prophecies can be defeated in several ways.

In Eff's world, it's common knowledge that a thirteenth child turns out badly. With just a look, they can make your bunions hurt more or sour the freshest milk. Due to this stigma, Eff is made miserable during her early childhood. And these scars remain with her, even after her family's move to Mill City. She hides the fact that she's a thirteenth child and still remains distant from most people, too scared of their reactions to her birth order. It's fear that also keeps Eff from fully developing her powers, to the point that spells she tries to cast fizzle out. And in those moments when she loses her control and lets go, she frets and worries, eaten up by guilt. It's only as she learns and finds confidence in a different form of magic that Eff is able to overcome-somewhat-the stigma of being a thirteenth child.

#2: An alternate world exists thanks to its roots in our world.

An expert at creating alternate universes thanks to the Kate and Cecilia trilogy written with Patricia Stevermer, Wrede creates another engaging what-if world. In this novel, magic mingles and infuses the American frontier, transforming Minneapolis on the Mississippi into Mill City on the eastern bank of the Mammoth River. Not just the river separates the civilized, safe towns from the wide-open, dangerous West; there is also the Great Barrier Spell, holding out the steam dragons and other fearsome creatures. This spell is an example of one school of magic, the Avrupan, contrasting with the Aphrikan and Hijero-Cathayan. These varying schools add complexity to the novel and also help explore the struggles of Eff as she tries to control her magic.

#3: There is room for different theories.

It's not too strange that in a world where magic extends to shoo-fly spells, there is a group that shuns any kind of magic. Known as Rationalists, these people feel that magic is a crutch. In the eyes of the Society of Progressive Rationalists, only through hard work, with your mind and your hands, should you achieve success. It might be a strange viewpoint to the people of Eff's world, but it also reflects the American values that exist in our society. One of the most pervasive American myths is the Horatio Alger idea, that a young man can go far thanks to brains, luck, and pluck. The Rationalists represent this ideal within the novel, and their lack of reliance on magic is shown to have an unexpected benefit by the end of the story.

Both a rollicking adventure and an insightful character study, The Thirteenth Child proves that you can combine contrasting elements into one story. Whether it is style or genre, these elements can be mixed together, faithful to each aspect while becoming something new. But beyond this accomplishment, Wrede has created a wonderful story. Recommend this novel, the first in a new series, to fans of the Kate and Cecilia trilogy or Gary Blackwood's The Year of the Hangman.


melissa @ 1lbr said...

I've been meaning to pick this one up for a while. What is it with the seventh son of a seventh son anyway? Is that some kind of folklore thing?

melissa said...

In the world of The Thirteenth Child, a "double seven" son is extra powerful, magically speaking. But you're right, I do think the idea of a seventh son of a seventh son is drawing upon folklore ideas about the power of the number seven.

I hope you get a chance to read it! It's a great book.