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13th child by Patricia Wrede

May 24th, 2009 (11:30 pm)

I've just read 13th child by Patricia Wrede. It's a tightly written book, well thought up in every way, about growing up in a land full of magic. It's an alternate history also, and the centre of something of a controversy because the main venue is "North Columbia", a North America where English speaking settlers are in the process of colonizing a land where there are absolutely no Amerindians in sight.

Wrede has been criticized for having written a novel where all of the Amerindians have been "pre-empted" by having never left Asia thousands of years before. But it doesn't say so in the novel. It's a sad fact that there are so many novels set in the U.S. where Amerindians are never taken into account or even mentioned that if Wrede hadn't said, on the Web, that she had set up a North America with no Amerindians in it I would never have noticed it.

Since English isn't my mother tongue one of the really important things for me is that she's also "pre-empted" all of the Spanish and Portuguese explorers and settlers. There is no mention of them in the story while there is a mention of South America having been quite successfully settled by people from Africa. And of course the French colonies of North America, which were the original "block" to U.S. colonial expansion, to the North and to the West, are totally nonexistent, having been pre-empted in a similar fashion. It's all English-speaking settlers everywhere, with not a sign of the Spanish, Portuguese and French languages. Up to now I haven't heard a single voice criticizing Wrede for this. This doesn't surprise me because U.S. science fiction authors and U.S. alternate history authors have been doing this for more than sixty years and critics have been traditionally narrow-minded when picking out the nits.

Yet, Wrede is very much aware of other cultures and while she does simplify things, as past U.S. SF authors have done repeatedly, she takes a great deal of trouble to integrate into the story the idea of a multiplicity of ideas and traditions across the globe.

When I first heard of the controversy I wondered how Wrede dealt with the question of what happened to those Asians who didn't cross over to the Americas, and how she dealt with Asians in general. From what I could read through the critics it seemed that she just brushed them off. But no! She doesn't! While she has no need to delve in the entire alternate history of "her" Earth, she does make a crucial element out of the existence of Asian culture and an Asian magical tradition. In her heroine's world that Asian tradition of magic-making is part of the great triad of European, African and Asian magical traditions.

So, OK, Asians never went across the Pacific to the Americas, but on the other hand they didn't huddle in caves for thousands of years while the Europeans marched on to greater and greater knowledge of magic theory and practice. The Asians developed their own approach to magic and according to legend their great sorcerers were the ones responsible for driving the great dragons out of Asia and Europe, centuries ago. Also, when the heroine needs to put her nascent magical powers in check her teacher (a very savvy black woman, well versed in the three great magical traditions/cultures) shows her how to use an auto-disciplinary technique developed by Asian magicians.

If Wrede is to be denounced then about 90 % of all U.S. SF authors should be vigorously denounced for their cultural simplifications. Wrede should be praised for being a lot more open to other cultures than is usual in U.S. SF novels.


Posted by: Greetings Fellow Comstoks! (fengi)
Posted at: May 25th, 2009 03:06 am (UTC)

Isn't it weird that Orson Scott Card, despite all his real life nastiness, manages to be relatively coherent and respectful when it comes to alt-history fantasy?

Posted by: Robert N. Lee (vee_ecks)
Posted at: May 25th, 2009 04:45 am (UTC)

If you're talking about the Alvin Maker books, I've seen that comparison made a few times in lately, and...given what I've read here and elsewhere from people who've read Wrede's book and having read Card's version, I don't see how the alternate history in either is "more cohesive," really, never mind respectful. Card's doesn't really make a lot of sense, either - he's got a US colonized largely by a divided UK in which the Reformation never happened. Everybody holds each other more at bay in the US via their magic, yet somehow the lesser England managed to grab a big chunk of North America, anyway. And African slavery still happened, even though they've got all kinds of magic, too.

Actually, Wrede's version, in which magic means stronger and more organized Asias and a Africas, co-world powers and colonizers of the Magic New World with Europe (this being book one, presumably the Asians are coming on stronger later), makes more sense, internally, even if Wrede never ends up exploring any of those possibilities to their full potential.

If only she'd included kung-fu eskimos...

Edited at 2009-05-25 04:48 am (UTC)

Posted by: Alain (ndgmtlcd)
Posted at: May 25th, 2009 07:07 pm (UTC)

Maybe, in one of the upcoming books, she'll have kung-fu Chukchi tribes doing Hijero-Cathayan magic.

Posted by: Robert N. Lee (vee_ecks)
Posted at: May 25th, 2009 05:06 am (UTC)

Oh, and those books also serve a particular and kind of fucked-up agenda: retelling the story of Joseph Smith so he really was a magician with a wonderful secret and great vision for America who traveled the land loving all men equally. Luckily, he gets captured by a bunch of Magical Red Men who teach him how to get in touch with his inner noble savage in the second book.

Posted by: Alain (ndgmtlcd)
Posted at: May 25th, 2009 07:27 pm (UTC)

I agree with you about Card. Just about everything he does has LDS underpinnings. At one point in the late 80s I got tired of it and wrote him off. At first it had been sort of exotic and quaint but in the end it became repetitive. I can't remember which one of the Alvin books I read, just before I abandonned Card, but I remember that the quality of his historical foundations was way below Wrede's work.

Posted by: Robert N. Lee (vee_ecks)
Posted at: May 27th, 2009 07:14 pm (UTC)

We talked about this, I think, when this first broke a week or so back: I had the same response to the concept and for the same reasons as people flipping the fuck out, currently. It's troublesome, at best, and does play into an ugly old narrative better left behind, I think.

That being said, anything sensible in the core of the LJ/DW teapot storm was left behind long ago, as usual, and now it's back to social retards who luv cartoons lining up to yell "Fuck you!" at published writers, just because the snooty bitches deserve it and they're accessible on LJ, I guess.

Still not very interested in the book, but it sounds better thought out than everybody who will never, ever read it is making it out to be, this week.

Edited at 2009-05-27 07:16 pm (UTC)

Posted by: Alain (ndgmtlcd)
Posted at: May 28th, 2009 01:25 am (UTC)

I was not planning to read it at all, at first. It seemed to be much, too much tightly targeted to young teen girls for me to like it, and sure enough it was really, really precisely targeted but once I got started I wanted to know how it came out.

What I really wanted to read or at least start reading on that Sunday afternoon was a little book with the subtle title of "The Origins of Capitalism" and with an author by the name of Ellen Meiksins Wood. From what I could gather from reviews, it did some really weird things with the "standard" Marxist historical materialism. I'm a sucker when it comes to abnormal things involving the Marxist dialectic. But Meiksins Wood wasn't at the big public library or the big bookstore downtown, so Wrede was my consolation prize.

Posted by: The Elf ½ (elfwreck)
Posted at: May 25th, 2009 03:08 pm (UTC)

This post has been included in a Linkspam roundup.

Posted by: Stella Omega (dharma_slut)
Posted at: May 25th, 2009 08:22 pm (UTC)
here via linkspam

with a question, because I have not read the book yet, and am curious about this aspect;
I get the impression that what Wrede does pay attention to here, is women, and their issues.

Which is also very important to me-- it seems that YA and fantasy are more embracing of female protagonists than SF traditionally is, but even so I don't find many proactive female heroes, or books in which gender assumptions are satisfactorially dealt with.

so, I'm wondering how you feel about that aspect of this book, if you don't mind...

and thanks!

Posted by: Alain (ndgmtlcd)
Posted at: May 25th, 2009 09:13 pm (UTC)
Re: here via linkspam

At first I was repulsed by the size of the families (6, 7, 10-12 children or more) and the fact that women are expected to marry and produce children, above any other consideration while men can go off and do all kinds of things. It reminded me too much of Quebec society before the big shift in the 1960s, and that reminder is enough to make me feel bad about anything, even when the writing is good.

On the other hand, Wrede is describing a 19th century North American society and that's how things really were. There isn't much room for a female heroine to be "proactive" in that kind of context but Wrede does seize every occasion, every possible exception for her heroine to actually do something instead of getting carried along by family and society.

A few months ago I read "Alanna: The First Adventure" by Tamora Pierce because I was intrigued by the series. In it the heroine is a lot more "proactive" than in Wrede's book. But while Pierce didn't repulse me by throwing the sorry lot of medieval women in my face, right at the beginning, it was still there in the background. Her heroine was in a more complicated rebellion against the strictures of society than Wrede's heroine, but it was still a question of working within bounds, of still respecting family and traditions while finding yourself.

Posted by: Stella Omega (dharma_slut)
Posted at: May 26th, 2009 04:42 am (UTC)
Re: here via linkspam

Thanks for the answer, it's very much appreciated. I do feel as if I need to read the thing, for my own analysis. Figure out how not to do it, or something.

Posted by: Alain (ndgmtlcd)
Posted at: May 26th, 2009 05:20 am (UTC)
Re: here via linkspam

Then please do read Pierce's "Alanna: The First Adventure" too. It's a slim book, with the same teen demographic target. You might also find in there a way to figure out what not to do, and sometimes, what to do. Personally, I find that comparing the two can be instructive, even if they were written 25 years apart.

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