The Thirteenth Child by Patricia C Wrede, 320 pp, RL 5
Thirteenth Child is now in PAPERBACK!!!
Book Two: Across the Barrier, will be published AUGUST 1, 2011!!
This book caught my eye the minute it hit the shelves at the bookstore where I work. After scanning the flap, I took it home and read it almost in one sitting, which, for a mother of three means that I ignored my children, husband and housework for a whole day. With Thirteenth Child, Book One in her new Frontier Magic Trilogy, Patricia C Wrede takes fantasy to a whole new world. As the series name suggests, Wrede's magicians and magical creatures find themselves at home on the range, so to speak. Imagine Diana Wynne Jones meets Laura Ingalls Wilder and you've got Frontier Magic! This is no one-room school house, prairie version of Hogwarts, however. Thirteenth Child is set in a world where there is magic everywhere, different ways to harness it and people who consciously choose not to utilize it at all. In addition to the cultural aspects of magic, there is the unexplored territory and the desire to conquer it.
While Eff Rothmer, the thirteenth child born into the family and also a twin to Lan, the seventh son of the seventh son, or a double seven as he comes to refer to himself, is the narrator of the story, she is often the quiet center of the storm. When the story begins she and Lan are five and living in Helvan Shores, somewhere on the East Coast. The town is full of uncles, aunts, cousins and grandparents, most of whom consider Eff a blight who should have been drowned at birth, bound to turn bad sooner than later. Where Lan is held in high esteem and great things are expected from him because of his place in the family's birth order, only bad luck and tragedy are expected from Eff. So much so that one day when she is five her Uncle Earn brings a policeman to her home insisting that she be arrested for putting a curse on his house, as witnessed by his daughter who also happens to be one of Eff's biggest tormentors. This event convinces Mama and Papa to move the family out West. Having been offered a teaching position at one of the new land-grant colleges out in the North Plains Territory over a year ago, Papa finally accepts and moves his family, those young enough to still live at home, to Mill City, a town just east of the Great Barrier (a complex magical protective spell) and thus free of monsters such as Columbian sphinxes, woolly rhinoceros, spectral bears, swarming weasels, steam dragons, and many other yet to be named and discovered menaces among the flora and fauna.
Life on the edge of the wilderness offers both normalcy and excitement from time to time. One of my favorite characters in the book is the excellent Miss Ochiba. A teacher at the day school, Miss Ochiba, described as tall and black, offers practical magic instruction and eventually ends up tutoring Eff and a few other children after school in the practice of Aphrikan and Hijero-Cathayan magical theory, which is different from the Avrupan magical theory that is traditionally taught in the schools and colleges. One of the most fascinating aspects of Wrede's book is the way that she ascribes different magical practices to different cultures and continents - Avrupan, Hijero-Cathayan and Aphrikan. But, as Washington Morris, explorer, guide and circuit magician on the west side of the Great Barrier says of the Columbians, name for the residents of the United States, "We're still inventing ourselves. But we're not starting from just one kind of magic, no matter what the folks back East may think. Columbian magic is a mixture and always has been - Avrupan and Aphrikan and Hijero-Cathayan and some traditions that haven't even grown large enough to make a theory or a style of magic, plus a few bits folks have just made up for themselves at need, all thrown together." By the end of Thirteenth Child Eff has become a true Columbian, a magical melting pot.
Although life in a new town without all of her siblings living at home gives Eff the chance to set aside her unfortunate luck at being a thirteenth child, it is always nagging at her, causing her to hang back. Eff and Lan befriend William Graham, the son of another college professor who is being tutored at home by his snobbish father. Will himself starts out a snob, so much so that, when he is eight and Lan is nine, he angers Lan so greatly that his magic shows itself and Lan finds himself floating Will twenty feet above ground, unable to bring him down. The ability to perform magic at this level in such a young child does not go unnoticed and Lan's position as a double seven is revealed to the townsfolk. However, the emergence of Lan's powers in a fit of anger does not go unnoticed by Eff who, in her extra classes with Miss Ochiba, is learning to see the many different aspects of any one thing, or world-sensing as Miss Ochiba calls it. When Eff's magic erupts at the age of thirteen during and encounter with Uncle Earn, she manages to turn her anger to fear, unsure of what the combination of her magical powers and bad luck will do to him, and the magic dissipates before harming him. It also scares Eff back into the shell that she was slowly crawling out of and convinces her that she should try to live her life without any magic at all as the Rationalists do, seeing as how she has no idea what her powers are capable of.
The Society of Progressive Rationalists, a group that does not hold with magic or magicians, seeing magic as a snare or crutch, believe that man will only realize his full potential when they stop using it and depend on their brains and strong arms instead. The leader of the group, Toller Lewis, along with his nephew, Brant Wilson, arrive in Mill City looking to obtain a claim from the settlement office. In an effort to convince the government that they can settle a claim without magic to ward of the wild beasts, Brant attends classes at the college, including Professor Rothmer's class on Theory and Application of the Great Barrier Spell. The Rationalists and their settlement play a big part in the last part of the story and Eff gets the chance to see what it is really like to live without magic, an opportunity that convinces her that she needs to learn how to manage the powerful magic that seems to be quietly coursing through her. Miss Ochiba teachs her a Hijero-Cathayan concentration technique that sounds very much like a form of Eastern meditation and, it is through this as well as her Aphrikan world-sensing that she ultimately expresses her power, upstaging Lan for once in her life.
Thirteenth Child follows Eff from the age of five up to the age of eighteen. Many times I wished that there was a map in the back of the book and a family tree in the front, but I think that the absence of these is a testament to the new world that Wrede is creating in this series. Often, I found myself asking my husband, who remembers and is interested in history much more than I, about names and places that come up in the story. I did not know anything about the real land-grant colleges that sprang up as the west was settled, but ultimately one's knowledge of American History does not matter. Wrede is writing Columbian History, an alternate history for the United States, where Ben Franklin, also a double seven, and Thomas Jefferson created the Great Barrier spell to protect the rest of the country from the magical wildlife, a group of explorers and scientists can come across the last camp site of the Lewis and Clark expedition - before they disappeared, and a War of Secession is hinted at. Wrede captures the tone and tenor of writing during this time period, with just the right amount of colloquialisms, a perfect pace and expected hardships for settlers and city dwellers alike. One review I read referred to the slow pace of the story. I didn't find it slow at all, but I was perfectly happy inhabiting this amazing world that Wrede is creating. And, knowing right off the bat that this is the first in a series, I wasn't looking for big endings or resolutions. What I did get is the start of what promises to be a spectacularly well-written series of fantasy books. Eff and Lan's names may not join the ranks of Harry and Hermione, or even Laura and Mary, but I wouldn't be the least bit surprised if they did!