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Thirteenth Child (Frontier Magic (Hardcover)) Hardcover – April 15, 2009
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From School Library Journal
Grade 7–9—In this alternative history, a magical barrier protects most people from the dangerous magical creatures of the Wild West. Eff is a 13th unlucky child who supposedly will cause doom and misfortune, and is twin sister to Lan, the lucky and extra-magical 7th son of a 7th son. This novel covers a lot of ground both in time, following Eff from when she's 5 until she's 18, and in distance, as Eff's family moves to the Western frontier when Eff's magic-professor father and practical mother decide that the move will hide Eff and Lan's differences. Then Lan's potential is revealed after he causes an annoying classmate to float. When he leaves to go to school back East, Eff follows her own path to learning more about magic, including assisting in caring for the magical creatures at her father's college. Her narration provides background about life in this version of early America, where magic helps with daily chores but brings its own dangers. Eff's life in Lan's shadow will ring true to all siblings of a particularly talented child, but at the conclusion it's Eff who uses her own magic to rescue her twin. Reminiscent of Orson Scott Card's "Alvin Maker" books (Tor), this is an interesting, but often slow-moving tale.—Beth L. Meister, Milwaukee Jewish Day School, WI
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Top Customer Reviews
I liked this a lot. The magic is complex and needing research (in that it reminds me of Strange/Norrell), but the POV character is vastly different. Her opinions and reactions worked well with the structure of her society, and the plot did seem inevitable- at least, once on looks back on it! I do NOT mean it was predictable, because I did not find it so.
I am looking forward to reading future novels set in this world.
Specifically, Patricia C Wrede's latest book is a unique fantasy set in an alternate world where dragons, mammoths and stray patches of magic stream across the United States (here called "Columbia"). While Wrede doesn't fully flesh out her cast or her alternate history, "Thirteenth Child" is a solid little merge of wagons-and-cabins frontier stories and exceptional magic.
Lan was born a seventh son of a seventh son, a natural for magic. But his sister Eff was born a thirteenth child, which popular superstition says will inevitably be evil and bring bad luck -- and her relatives take every chance to torment her about it.
Fortunately their parents decide to move all the children still living with them out west, to a small university. Over the years, Eff has problems other than her status as a "thirteenth" -- the Rationalists, who avoid all magic; the steam dragons that fly overhead; and some nasty encounters with fellow students. And Eff starts learning from the kindly Miss Ochiba, who introduces her to Aphrikan and Hijero-Cathayan magic.
But Eff's family is thrown into chaos when one of her sisters causes a massive scandal. And when a strange plague of grubs and insects (which once destroyed an entire settler town) threaten to destroy all the settlements in the west, Eff accompanies a research team to the Rationalist town. But not only are the insects all over the place, they seem to be impossible to eradicate with magic. Can a thirteenth child hope to save the settlements?
The biggest problem with "Thirteenth Child" is that Patricia C Wrede's imagination is bigger than her book -- she creates an epic alternate history full of strange creatures and different spins on American history, and a sprawling magically-gifted clan with fourteen kids and countless other relatives. But she ends up not quite having enough time to fully develop either her history or her fictional family -- especially the latter, since I had trouble keeping track of all Eff's siblings.
Thankfully, that problem doesn't sink "Thirteenth Child," mainly because Wrede is talented enough to keep a sprawling frontier tale intertwined with Eff's personal story. This book is full of solid steady writing and period anecdotes, often with the problems (like rheumatic fever) and experiences (spelling bees, dances, small schools) that settlers would have had. Her style that sounds both earthy ("the grass dried out hard and sharp as pins") and exquisite ("its silver snake body trailing steam...").
And despite being patchy, her vision of the western frontier is a colourful one -- a Great Barrier that tries to keep back weird creatures like sabertoothed tigers, steam dragons, mammoths and woolly rhinos. Not to mention the creepy grubs and mirror bugs. At the same time she explores Eff's formative years right up to adulthood, as well as her family's personal woes and problems.
And Wrede clearly gave plenty of thought to her magical world, whether it's the different brands of magic or the possible effects that NOT using magic might have on a person. It would be interesting to see where she takes this next, since the ending is left wide open for a sequel.
Though she mopes too much about her thirteenhood, Eff comes across as a likable underdog who slowly gains confidence and strength throughout the story, while her buddy (and potential love interest) William starts off rather prickly but soon becomes a sensible counterpoint to Eff. And Lan is an excellent blend of overconfidence mingled with protectiveness -- this guy would be totally unbearable if he weren't so devoted to his sister.
"Thirteenth Child" has a few flaws, but the story itself is a solid Little-House-on-the-Prairie tale set in a magical world. And it leaves you wondering what Eff might do next.
I had heard a lot about the controversy surrounding Wrede's alternative history frontier fantasy before I read it, so I settled down to read this book with some trepidation, even though I dearly love Patricia Wrede. Because her new Frontier Magic series takes place in an alternate American history, one where the United States never had a Native American population, many readers and critics were troubled. It seems deeply insensitive to eradicate a group of people who have already been through so much. And yet, reading the book, didn't feel as overwhelmingly uncomfortable as I would have thought. I'm also a fan of Joss Whedon's Firefly, a science-fiction/Wild West type show, and I have to admit, the lack of Native Americans on that show never bothered me. It was unclear to me, reading Wrede's book, if slavery had ever existed in her alternate history. While Aphrikan people (and their magic) seem to be a rare minority, no further backstory is given.
I liked the idea of frontierspeople struggling to hold their own against magical creatures; mammoths, dragons, enchanted beetles. Magic, in this world, is commonplace and everyday. The Wild West twang to the character's speech added depth to the story.
Eff's continual low self-esteem became a bit wearing as the story went on. She is just as worried at age eighteen about inadvertently causing bad luck to befall her family and loved ones as she was at age five, when her maliciously bad-tempered extended family went so far as to outright suggest that her parents do away with her. Some of the terms like Mammoth River (for the Mississippi) or Columbia (for America) being thrown together with place names such as Philadelphia threw me a bit. I wish that this had been set in a completely new world altogether, kind of like Robin McKinley's The Blue Sword.
I was fascinated with the Rationalists, Puritan-like settlers who eschew magic entirely. I was really rooting for them, especially after seeing how callously many of the magicians in the story treated Eff. Eff's older sister Rennie elopes with one of the Rationalists and her encampment is one of the only ones resistant to a particularly nasty strain of magical locust-like mirror bugs. So, I was disappointed when Eff finally has the chance to visit them and Rennie breaks down, admitting that life without magic is very, very hard -- so much so, that she's resorted to sneaking in a spell or two to make her hardscrabble life a bit easier.
On the whole, I enjoyed this book, and I'll definitely put it in the hands of young fantasy readers who enjoyed Wrede's Sorcery and Cecilia series, or the Bartimaeus trilogy by Jonathan Stroud. I'm curious how this book would fare as book club material; there are so many different themes at play to provide fodder for discussion.