Thirteenth Child, by Patricia Wrede (2009) K

Date Read: 3.31.11
Book From: Personal Collection
Reviewer: Kakaner

Thirteenth Child is set against the backdrop of an alternate universe that reads like turn of the 18th century America with magic– a relatively developed and civilized East Coast and people applying for settlements and moving out West to pioneer the land. Magic is the center of life in this world, with universities and courses of study primarily focused on magical history and practice, and each settlement’s survival depends on a trained magician to protect it from the mysterious magical wilderness. Francine, known as Eff, is born into a large family of magicians as the thirteenth daughter, which according to Avrupan magic is highly unlucky and those around her believe that she has only potential for great evil. A combination of the escalating bullying and hatred directed toward Eff and the lure of a fresh beginning at a new teaching post for her father prompts the Rothmer family to move out West, away from some of the more established institutions of thought and ingrained prejudices, to a frontier that introduces Eff to new magics and the dangers of fringe settlements.

I would say Thirteenth Child was a pleasant read in that it was not very challenging or engaging but had enough shiny objects scattered throughout to keep me mildly interested for the duration. I’d chalk part of it up to the Enchanted Forest Chronicles in that it set the bar very, very high, and unfortunately, Thirteenth Child fell short in every way. Cimorene and co were simply more interesting, being a rambunctious crew with simmering love plots and a great deal of magical talent and flourish, and they traipsed around a world full of dragons, magic carpets, towers, princesses– you name it. Granted, Thirteenth Child was simply not aiming for the same effect because it had a very calm setting and a story centered on family and childhood, but the characters and plot felt muted and dampened, as if striving for that same level of excitement and exploration but being unexpectedly held back by an ill-chosen pairing of heroine and setting.

I was, however, relatively pleased with Wrede’s worldbuilding in this book, and I think because the story so depended on the reader understanding and immersing himself into this world, much of the actions and events seemed specially designed to worldbuild. The exposition and process of moving gives the reader an overlay of this America, and Eff’s subsequent enrollment in classes and the rather large portion of time devoted to delineating the subject matters and sampling from lessons paints us histories, structures, and schools of magic. Much of the Rothmer family’s daily life was also related to the reader, from the chores that included embroidery, sewing, and woodworking to accepted courting practices and on a larger scale, the transformation from child to young adult reflected by clothing and hairstyle. I could feel the meat of research and attention to detail supporting the world and it was certainly believable and I enjoyed the process. Reading this also prompted me to scan through Wrede’s bibliography for the first time, (although I call myself a Wrede fan, I have only read the Enchanted Forest Chronicles) which put this universe into perspective. I love historical fantasy and respect what she tried to construct in this book and enjoyed the world for its own merits.

It was unclear for too long exactly where the plot was headed or if adventure would unfold more than just a couple yards.Eff is an extremely predictable, safe, likable character but has not much else to define her. She is frustrated by her status as a thirteenth child, curious about magic in general, loving towards those siblings closer in age to her and rather indifferent to those much older, but shows little other emotion and doesn’t really undergo internal conflict besides frustration. I know that Wrede is known for her magical heroines, but I thought this story would have been better if told from Lan’s POV (her gifted brother and a double seventh son) or even William’s (Eff’s friend, another child of a professor of magic) because strangely, Lan and William were the ones getting into the thick of things and being allowed to go on magical adventures due to either talent or born privilege while Eff stayed home doing chores and worrying. Strange, strange POV setup which could have worked if Eff were about 10 notches more interesting. The most disappointing of all was that the very title of the book, Eff’s defining status, was addressed rather passively several times, then set aside and never seen again. Besides being an extra motivating factor for the family to move out West, Eff’s stigma served no real purpose– if she was a combination of ugly and clumsy with magic for other reasons, events would have unfolded just the same. I wanted so much for her status to work into the story in some dazzling (or at the very least meaningful) way but it was all just unrealized expectation.

Sadly, I gave this read my all but ended up being very detached from the events and characters. The focus of the plot isn’t even apparent until three-quarters in, and the climax is extremely underwhelming. Overall, slow pace, dull characters, and lacking the signature sparkle of a Wrede story, and would not recommend. (But the spine says “Frontier Magic: Book One” and the completionist in me is yearninggggggg…)

Go to:
Patricia Wrede: bio and works reviewed
Dealing With Dragons, review by Emera
Talking to Dragons, review by Emera

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  1. Emera’s avatar

    Frontier Magic: Book One
    I was going to say – this sounds very much like first-novel-in-the-series syndrome. Maybe she’ll start pulling out the stops when it comes to Eff adventuring etc. in the later books?

    The setting does sound very charming, but unless it’s seriously absorbing (in a JSMN-y or Sunshine-y way) on top of just being charming, I’m not sure how motivated I feel to check this out yet.

    if adventure would unfold more than just a couple yards
    hahaha, NICE.

    because strangely, Lan and William were the ones getting into the thick of things and being allowed to go on magical adventures
    Curious – does Eff being a girl play into this division at all, or is it just the talented/untalented thing?

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