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.