Sunday, April 5, 2009

A Review of Thirteenth Child by Patricia C. Wrede

I’ve been looking forward to this book coming out for months! So when I saw it in the bookstore yesterday, I snatched it up, ran home, and read the whole thing straight through. Why, you may ask, such transportations of delight? Well, fantasy is my favorite genre, and Patricia C. Wrede has written some very fun books, most notably the Enchanted Forest Chronicles, starting with Dealing with Dragons. She also coauthored Sorcery and Cecilia or the Enchanted Chocolate Pot and its sequels with Caroline Stevermer—novels of manners set in an alternate England where magicians are the norm.

Another reason I’ve been dying to read Thirteenth Child is because it clearly falls in the new subgenre I’ve been talking about, rural fantasy. (See my blog entry for January 16: “Move Over, Steampunk!”) With this book, Wrede is starting a new series called Frontier Magic, in which Americans in the 1800s have magicians to help them settle the Wild West (only here they're called Columbians). Wrede’s world is new in other ways, I discovered: the frontier is populated by “natural” animals such as mammoths, bison, and woolly rhinoseroses, along with magical creatures such as steam dragons, spectral bears, and swarming weasels.

On the far side of the plains were mountains, sharp and high, that no one had seen but a few explorers. Papa said that at least ten expeditions had tried to find a way through them to the Pacific Ocean, but only three men had ever come back alive, and they were stark out of their heads. There was a monument in the capital to Lewis and Clark, who headed the first group that went missing, back in 1804. It was more than wild country; it was unknown.

Alternative history, indeed! But there’s more: formerly, magicians led by Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin erected the Great Barrier Spell, intended to keep the lethal beasts of the frontier from overrunning and devouring Columbians. Now Eff and her family are moving out to the edge of the frontier, where her father will teach magic at a small college.

Eff is the hero of our story, though she thinks she's its villain. Because she is the thirteenth child, her superstitious uncles and aunts and cousins tell her over and over that she will turn out to be evil and should have been drowned at birth. To make matters worse, her twin Lan is the golden boy, seventh son of a seventh son and mightily magical. Fortunately, he and Eff are very close. But one of the reasons Eff’s parents are moving out west is to get away from the relatives who treat their daughter as if she were cursed.

The story telling has an epic feel, beginning when Eff is five and ending when she is eighteen. Eff and Lan attend a small public school out in the settlement, though Lan is given supplemental lessons to cultivate his gifts. It doesn’t occur to anyone except the amazing Miss Ochiba that Eff might be plenty gifted in her own right. Miss Ochiba schools Eff and her friend William in Aphrikan magic during after-school tutoring sessions while Lan is busy learning the more commonly valued Avrupan (European) magic.

We also meet the Society of Progressive Rationalists, who abhor magic and are determined to build a settlement without using any at all. One such rationalist, Brant Wilson, studies with Eff’s father and turns out to be a bit of a hero; he also turns Eff’s older sister’s head. Another character of note is “Wash” Washington Morris, a circuit riding magician who troubleshoots problems in the scattered settlements.

In time, Eff’s gifts begin to show in unexpected ways as she and her family and friends take on a problem that is destroying the crops of the entire region. It’s not dragon fighting, but it’s a matter of life and death for these struggling farmers.

Thirteenth Child reads like historical fiction, and I was thoroughly caught up in the way the Columbian settlers handled their challenges. One of the strengths of the book is the way Wrede captures the "can do" feeling of frontier living and this era in our country's history. Her greatest success, though, is the character of Eff and her story, which is what really kept me going. I did get a little bogged down near the end of the book during explanations about different stages of beetles, but that’s the only place my reading faltered. I can assure you that Patricia C. Wrede’s latest series, like a settler taming new land, is off to a brave, strong start.


Jennifer said...

Yay! I have been so worred/excited/thrilled/tense about this because while I loooove Wrede, I equally haaaate fantasies (or anything) set in the "west". You have reassured me! I can now wait for my copy with breathless and completely happy anticipation!

Em said...

This sounds good. and I really like the simple cover!

There's an award waiting for you at my blog! ;)

Kate Coombs said...

Emm--Thanks for the award! And good point about the cover; I wonder what Jacket Whys would have to say about it? :)

Prakruthi Sreenivasamurthy said...

I really like the cover cause of the font, and I was going to get the book at my middle school's book fair when I saw it, but I didn't get a chance. i might get it later, though. It sounds really good!

Kate Coombs said...

Yeah. I will say that this book isn't as fast-paced as some of the others out there, but the world building is so unusual that it made up for it, at least for me. I'll be interested to see what she does with the next book.