How does Patricia C. Wrede do it? After not reading anything by her for years, I've read two books by her (or one half-by her, I guess) recently and decided upon completion to immediately purchase them both. With this book the compulsion was even stronger than with Sorcery and Cecelia. This book is just brilliant. It is compulsively readable, understated, and deeply interesting. There is humour, there is pain; there is beauty, there is ugliness. Although I think, in keeping with how I feel it's understated, we are left to imagine the pain and the ugliness, and this is not by any means a dark book. I first learned of this book back in April 2009 from Abby (the) Librarian, who wasn't as effusive in her praise as I am about to be, but enjoyed it enough to pique my interest.
I often view Wrede as a light read, which is not entirely true. Yes, the Enchanted Forest Chronicles are pretty light, a whimsical and entertaining retelling and re-imagining of fairytale and fantasy conventions. Thirteenth Child, on the other hand, is an entertaining pioneer story, a western with a healthy dose of magic. The world that Wrede creates is fascinating, tied to our own by familiar names (only Pythagoras and Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson were also extremely powerful magicians) and concepts -- the push of settlement to the west, the pushing back of the wild frontier. And though she doesn't delve deeply into issues like destruction of wildlife and habitats, and human hubris and blinkered thinking, it's touched upon, brushed upon in such a way that it's there to be thought about if the reader so chooses. She also deals outright with bullies and human potential, in a much more obvious but only rarely heavy-handed way.
Eff is a thirteenth child. In Avrupan culture, the culture in which she grows up, the thirteenth child is terribly unlucky at best and outright evil at worst; there are hints that these children would be killed at birth, at least in the past. Luckily for Eff, her parents will have no stock with that, nor will her twin brother Lan, a lucky and powerful seventh son of a seventh son. But Eff does have to deal with the taunts and worse of her extended family and the other children until her father accepts a position out west teaching magic at one of the new colleges, and the Rothmer family (those young enough to still be living at home) picks up and moves to Mill City. Here no one knows Eff is a thirteenth, although Eff herself can't forget it. The story chronicles Eff's life from the time she's old enough to remember anything at roughly three or four to eighteen as she starts to come in to her own. It's told in first person, in Eff's wonderfully distinctive, practical and variously wry or earnest voice. It's a marvelous tale and I love it.
We see through Eff's eyes, and she's a perceptive little thing. Through her we get a feel for many of the other characters around: her twin Lan, who she adores and who adores her, but neither are without their flaws; Papa and Mama, the centre of the enormous Rothmer family; Eff's siblings, some of whom we get to know better than others; Eff's aunts and uncles, the awful lot of them (though, again there are shades of awful and some are not as they seem at first); the professors at the college, Eff's teachers, and their fellow students. William, Lan and Eff's best friend, who grows and changes as Eff and Lan do, and is one of the better fleshed-out characters. It's a big cast, but the important players are real and wonderful. There are no straight-up villains, either, except for perhaps Eff's Uncle Earn, who plays a relatively small role except in Eff's head. The struggles come more from Eff's own complex about being thirteenth (brought on by Earn) and from nature.
Which gets me into an aspect of the book I really liked. I've always wished that someone could turn back time and tell the settlers that killing everything is perhaps not the most intelligent way to go about things; watching this story unfold was interesting, because those thoughts are addressed mostly obliquely, but I think they're there. Towards the end with the introduction of the naturalist and travelling magician Wash this issue gets a bit more attention. There's no denying that the frontier, the world outside the Great Barrier, is a very dangerous place; it makes me wince, in Wrede's history as in ours, that the solution to the problem is killing the creatures, eradicating them entirely so that they won't be a problem. The dangers are given mythic status by the settlers and those back home, largely due to ignorance. Even right on the frontier the wild animals, both magical and not, are feared absolutely and those who willingly go outside the Barrier are viewed with awe. The disaster at the climax of the story is environmental in nature, and was handled in a way that makes the reader think about who is to blame for it, and what lessons might be learned in this alternate history from it. It's never shoved down our throats, though.
And imagine my delight when I discovered that this is the first of a projected trilogy, all to be narrated by Eff. I'm really, really looking forward to the next one. Highly, highly recommended. I hope this series finds a wide audience.