Hemning Sternberg (moonshadow) wrote,
Hemning Sternberg

Thirteenth Child by Patricia Wrede

Title: Thirteenth Child
Author: Patricia Wrede
Series: I don't know of it being part of a series, but I hope it will have sequels.
Genre: Alternate history fantasy
Reason for Reading: This is an odd one. I heard this book being criticized as part of
Racefail 09, and I felt like I didn't want to attack or defend it without reading it myself.
Pages: 344
Copyright Date: 2009
Cover: Parchment backing, little stencil shapes of a dragon, a windmill, and a horse and cart, Old West style typeface.
First line: "Everybody knows that a seventh son is lucky."
Best part: I really enjoyed the plot.
Worst part: I was able to see the plot twists coming quite a ways off.
Imaginary Theme Song: "Superstitious" by Stevie Wonder
Grade: B-
Recommended for: Fans of Harry Turtledove, Kim Newman, and other alternate history writers.
Related Reads: Territory by Emma Bull is the only one I can think of. This is a genre niche for sure.

Wrede's premise, which made a lot of fans of color unhappy and has been described as Mammothfail as part of the Racefail'09 dialogue, is that there was no land bridge to North America. The continent is therefore full of mammoths, wooly rhinos, saber-tooth tigers, and a lot of magical creatures. The continent does not have any Native Americans in this model, the Avrupans (or Europeans) showed up to a dangerous continent empty of other humans. The book mostly includes Avrupan characters, there are also two strong and powerful Aphrikaan characters. Personally, I didn't feel that it was bigoted. I've read two books in the past two years that feature the Germans winning WW2, Farthing and Resistance, and no one seems to think that that premise means the authors are skinheads. Fantasy is all about asking "What if?" and I think this what-if is an interesting one.

I suspect a lot of the issue here is crisis of representation, a concept teratomarty introduced me to the name of but which I had been familiar with previously. This concept says that because there are a few representations of minority images (racial, sexual, religious, ethnic, yadda yadda) that the few representations that we do get are judged very harshly by those in the group. I have definitely done this myself when seeing (for instance) a kinky character on a TV show, who is almost invariably guilty of a murder, or hiding a horrible secret in their past, or something, and getting really annoyed about it.

I can easily see it being argued that people of color are not written enough into books and that therefore Native American characters should never be excluded. But I've also seen it argued that us white folks should stop writing about characters outside of our own ethnic groups so that we won't tokenize and romanticize. Definitely both of those things are problems. But I think that here, Wrede was damned if she did or didn't, given the emotional climate in fandom at the time the book came out. The premise was very important to the plot, and even if she'd jettisoned that and written Native Americans in somehow, I think she still would have been castigated for "doing it wrong."

Anyhow. My main critique of the book from an ideological standpoint is that it is somewhat imperialist and not very environmentally savvy. Nobody even makes a token comment about the wild places being beautiful, maybe we shouldn't explore here, maybe these magical creatures are going to get wiped out if we keep expanding, or anything like that. It's very oriented towards pushing technology, magic, and people, throughout the whole continent. I hope that might be addressed in a sequel.

Eff is a thirteenth child. Believed inherently wicked, she is the object of superstition and fear among all that she meets. Lan, her twin brother, is a double-seven - the seventh son of a seventh son. Believed inherently good and powerful, he is the object of praise and admiration among all that he meets. But now Eff's parents are moving out to the frontier, where no one knows that Eff is a thirteenth child. Will she finally get a chance to come into her own?

I was surprised by how much I enjoyed this book. It is sweet and original. I hope there will be sequels.
Tags: books 2009, fiction
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