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This review is from: Thirteenth Child (Frontier Magic (Hardcover)) (Hardcover)
If Diana Wynne-Jones and Laura Ingalls Wilder had ever collaborated on a book, it might have turned out something like "Thirteenth Child."
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.