On My Shelves: The Thirteenth Child




This was a really excellent book. On the Amazon scale, I'd give it four-and-a-half stars (unfortunate that Amazon doesn't permit half-star ratings to be given out)


First-person protagonist "Eff" (her first initial; her actual name is hardly ever mentioned in the book) is the eponymous Thirteenth Child, one supposedly born with cursed magic and destined to go bad according to many in her society. Her plight is made worse by the fact that she is the elder twin sister to a fourteenth child, her few minutes younger brother Lan -- who happens to be the seventh son of a seventh son, and thus destined for amazing power.


Just the interesting details of the magical systems that Patricia Wrede has worked out are fun enough to make the book worth reading, but in actuality that's just part of the novel. What really makes it WORK is that this is really a story of a pioneer society that just happens to be taking place on an alternate Earth, where somehow human beings never made the trip across the land bridge to North America, and the megafauna never quite died out... and there's functional magic, both for intelligent and nonintelligent creatures.


This is Little House on the Prairie (the novels, not the execrable TV series) crossed with the magical mystery/adventure of Lyndon Hardy's Five Magics/Six Magics series, with the hard-edged rational touch of Modesitt's Recluce series. Eff's family moves to the frontier and becomes part of a growing community at the edge of the "safe" zone behind a magical barrier, and Eff learns to confront her strange natural abilities and eventually master them, learning something about herself -- and everyone around her -- in the process.


One of the things I liked most about The Thirteenth Child is that while it certainly played to various tropes, some of the ones I find most annoying were, for the most part, averted. There's some sibling rivalry between Lan and Eff, but for the most part they're brother and sister united against the others. The parents are actually smart and supportive, and the one true jerk of the family gets his comeuppance and basically no one takes his part. It's shown that the whole "Thirteenth Child" schtick is, in fact, not even universal. Someone who could easily have been made a fairly stock rival/adversary becomes an ally of the family.


The book kept me not off-balance, but interested, to see which way it went, and it went in the direction I didn't expect about as often as it went in one I did. This is the delicate balance a good novel should walk; you want your reader to feel involved and reasonably informed (so he or she can predict a lot of what's going on) but not bored or overconfident that they know how things are going to turn out (so they want to keep reading). Ms. Wrede hit that balance perfectly in this book.


I enjoyed this immensely and have put the others in the series on my wish list!





  1. The middle book in the trilogy is, if anything, a bit more wondrous but also more travelogue; the finale (just out) is an excellent capstone. It also features one of the most understated romance plots I’ve ever seen in a YA novel, resolved in an amazingly mature way.

    I’ve read the first two books to my boys as bedtime stories, and will commence on the third one tonight.

  2. I didn’t like it.

    I’m sorry, but it’s not frontier fantasy. *True* frontier fantasy has stronger elements incorporating the natural setting as an antagonist or character in its own right (note, Glen Love’s writings on ecocriticism and Western authors, for one). This is more of a school story or a story of manners than it is a frontier fantasy. Even Card’s Alvin Maker series has more of these elements than this one.

    The assumptions that this story/series is a “frontier fantasy” seriously set my teeth on edge (never mind the Racefail controversy it helped to trigger). Compare it to the Laura Ingalls Wilder series that so many liken it to. In LIW, nature/natural settings are a significant secondary character and at times an antagonist (The Long Winter, anyone?).

    I argue it can’t be “frontier fantasy” if the natural settings are not part and parcel of the plot struggle and strong players. I don’t see it in this book.

    • I can see your position, but I don’t agree; for instance, the major opposition in the climax of the book is nature itself. You can’t ignore that just because the universe has magical as well as real-world biological elements; it’s actually quite reasonable parallel to the threat posed by the locusts in Plum Creek.

      • No, you don’t get it. Nature doesn’t come into play until that very last climax. I would argue that for it to be a true frontier fantasy, the natural environment has to be a character throughout the entire setting. Otherwise, it’s still just a story of manners with a climax that employs the classic “person against nature” conflict, but Nature is not itself a character. The natural setting does not come to life, does not play a major role in Eff’s deliberations until that ending sequence. Look at LeGuin’s work for a ecocentric counter, look to the works of writers such as Ed Abbey, Ken Kesey, H.L. Davies, for examples.

        Or go to the source and read Glen Love’s ECOCRITICISM.

        There’s more “frontier fantasy” in steampunk than there is in this book, sorry to say.

        • I “get” your point of view. I don’t agree with it. This FELT very much like Laura Ingalls in Magicland to me, so that’s what it is. You don’t agree, and that’s fine — if we all had the same view on everything, plenty of books would never get bought.

          “The source” is not some other guy’s book, it’s what I read in THIS book. I am… uninterested, to put it mildly, in reading some other person’s view on how to read someone else’s books for a particular approach.

  3. while i had to grit my teeth over half my history being erased, i enjoyed it when i was able to ignore that particular problem. i can see how those who don’t have that history [or, at least, don’t have it as an active part of their life] don’t have that problem, and i can see how it’s an incredibly tempting idea – frontier-fantasy WITHOUT the colonialism.

    [that said – how did i not know you had a non-LJ blog? i can’t *do* LJ anymore, but damn i missed your writing! so happy to have stumbled to your other blog. through, i’ll note, Heinlein. so that’s apropos, na da? also: WRITE FASTER! i’m so mean to my writers lol]

    • “. i can see how those who don’t have that history [or, at least, don’t have it as an active part of their life] don’t have that proboem”

      Or in my case don’t have the same attitude towards history at all; to me, my history isn’t my ancestors. It’s ME. And my parents, I guess. I can’t imagine being bothered by someone doing the equivalent to my past (having a never-settled, empty-of-humans Europe colonized by, oh, an advanced Iroquois nation), because it’s not MY past. It’s the past of some other alternate world that has nothing to do with me. (I’d be more bothered by an empty *Africa*, because that’s where, as far as we know, humanity evolved to begin with). I’d only be bothered if it was clear that someone deliberately erased my history, personally, because they didn’t like me.

      As far as why you didn’t know, well, this IS a relatively new site, about one year old. And if you weren’t using LJ and weren’t on Baen’s Bar or one of my F-list on Facebook, you wouldn’t have seen my announcements. (How’d you find the site?)

      I’m writing as fast as I can! Someone needs to give me a multimillion dollar movie deal so I can quit this whole “day job” thing and write full time. πŸ™‚ That said, Phoenix Rising releases in a couple of days, Portal is coming out in May, and the sequel to Grand Central Arena will probably be out this time next year. So I am writing SOMEWHAT faster. πŸ™‚

      • i spent a fair amount of my childhood on the Rez – it *feels* like my history! [my Apple-hood notwithstanding] i don’t mind writers changing what happens to history, generally – hello, Flint is one of my favorites! – but total erasure is, in a way, something that’s a little too real. i’ve met family who had been taken from their homes and forcibly reducated…
        like i said – i see the draw. when i could get outside my head, i really enjoyed the book. just… yeah. ‘course, the fact that i COULD enjoy it at all says it’s a pretty damned good book πŸ™‚

        how did i find you; well, i was doing a search on Heinlein, and… there you were πŸ˜€

        just FYI – both Phoenix Rising and Portal are already pre-ordered [PR twice, because my niece is named Phoenix, and it’s a weird family tradition to buy her every piece of new fiction that bears the name. NOT COUNTING MARVEL, because dear gods! we’d go broke!] but i didn’t realize the GCA sequel was that close to coming out!!! *happydance!*

        don’t worry, After I Take Over The World, i promise you a luxury suit, free of charge for everything, so long as you write. *EG* [and if you’re nice, i WON’T make you room with anyone. i’ve had this weird little Celebrity-Death-Match idea of making Ringo and Card and room together, because i’m EVIL and i still feel utterly betrayed by Card. le sigh. also by Ringo, because did you SEE how he killed redshirt-me?!?! that was just *cruel*]

        • I’m glad you were able to get past it enough to see that it was indeed a good book. I have nothing against people saying “I can’t read this because it does X, which personally bothers me because of Y”. I’d be hypocritical to do so, since there’s plenty of books I won’t read because of various reasons (most often because they violate, or seem very likely to violate, my grimness threshold).

          Yes, buying everything with “Phoenix” in it from Marvel would require another full-time job to finance, especially since they have multiple characters of that name.

          Just noticed last night: They MISSPELLED MY NAME on the spine of the book. O_O I’m now either a grain or booze, as “Rye E. Spoor”.

  4. *falls down laughing*
    i seriously didn’t notice the misprint on the spine! but, if it makes you feel any better – i have a book by P.N. Elrod that misspelled her name as “Elrond”. it’ll be worth a bundle someday πŸ˜€

    and oh, Marvel – i quit reading for a loooooooong time, sometime around Jean Grey’s 100th death-and-ressurection. then there’s the other-timeline daughter, and now Hope, and i don’t even KNOW HOW MANY it’s INSANE. plus all the clones…
    why!?!?!? Jean Grey isn’t even an interesting or cool character!

    as for the Frontier Magic series, i’m trying to convince myself the read the sequels. like i said, when i could not think about my history [it’s real to me… but not my youngest sister. so much difference a decade makes!] i really liked the story – especially the take on magic. ‘course, i’m poor right now so couldn’t get them now anyway [i do own the first one]

    actually, i think the most impressive thing about the series is that it *IS* so good, despite how the erasure really bothers me. does that make sense?

    PS: this really needs an RSS feed for comments or something. sorry for the slow response; i have to remember to come back to this comment, and i’ve been sick and such, so my memory isn’t top right now πŸ™

Your comments or questions welcomed!