Monday, November 23, 2015

Thirteenth Child (Patricia C. Wrede)

Thirteenth Child
(The Frontier Magic series, Book 1)
Patricia C. Wrede
Fiction, YA Fantasy
**** (Good)

DESCRIPTION: Eff's twin brother, Lan, is a seventh son of a seventh son - and everyone knows how lucky and powerful he'll become when he grows into his magic. But Eff has older sisters, too... making her the thirteenth-born child. According to Uncle Earn and most everyone outside her immediate family, she should've been drowned at birth for all the evil she'll undoubtedly unleash upon the world. When Papa accepts a position teaching magic in Mill City, on the very edge of civilized lands, it's both a boon and a danger. Here, away from Earn and other relatives, nobody will know whether she or Lan was born first. But Mill City is right on the shore of the mighty Mammoth river, within sight of the great barrier spell that keeps the monsters of the untamed West - from magical creatures like steam dragons and swarm weasels to mundane-yet-deadly beasts like mammoths, saber cats, and dire wolves - at bay. Many of the young magicians Papa trains will be going to frontier settlements, protecting homesteaders as they push the boundaries of Columbia into the wilderness beyond the river. Eff and her family should be safe enough, with the river and the barrier... but Eff is still a thirteenth child, a curse no magic can thwart, so danger is bound to find her.

REVIEW: Wrede establishes an interesting alternate history of American westward expansion in a world where magic is commonplace, used for everything from the great barrier spells protecting settlements to housewives hastening the drying of laundry. The only ones who don't use magic are those like the Progressive Rationalists, who consider it a corrupting crutch. Wrede doesn't stop at America/Columbia's borders, either, with three established magical systems from around the world... each holding pieces of truth, but none able to encompass or explain the whole, mysterious force of magic, for all its near-omnipresence in daily modern life. Within this setup, though, there isn't much of a main, driving story arc. Mostly, it's about Eff growing up with the stigma of being a thirteenth child, struggling to become her own person and experiencing life on the edge of the frontier. Along the way, she meets enemies and allies, a host of names that were occasionally difficult to keep straight (particularly Eff's large family and extended family). Several of these people turn out to be other than they seemed; one of the main themes of the book is that there are many ways to view any person, thing, or event, so nobody answers to one static description (save a few bit players). Even the Progressive Rationalists don't become bogeymen; they have clearly-stated reasons for their beliefs, and some of their ideas - that a reliance on magic can make for laziness, and ultimately works created by mundane effort last longer - have merit... even though some Rationalists take their beliefs to the point of prejudice. Sometimes, I found the lack of a greater arc or focus a little trying, especially when the name tangle bogged me down. Overall, though, I liked the characters and the world, and the voice kept me reading. I'll have to see if I can track down the next book sometime - I'm especially eager to see what other wonders and dangers lie beyond the Mammoth River, aside from the tantalizing glimpses given here.

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