Set in an alternate-history America right after the Civil War, Patricia Wrede’s frontier fantasy details an Old West where magicians expediate westward expansion by maintaining a great spell wall that keeps the giant woolly mammoths and steam dragons at bay. Everyone learns basic spell casting in school, with the exception of the Rationalists, a group that is philosophically opposed to using magical means to make life easier. Born into a large magically inclined family, Eff is child number thirteen, generally considered not only unlucky but downright evil. Eff is neither, though she fears every moment that she is destined to “go bad.” Opposite in reputation is her twin brother Lan, born the seventh son of a seventh son and therefore destined to develop into a naturally powerful magician. When their father, a professor of magic, is given the opportunity to teach in a borderland school, he moves the whole family west where Eff and Lan both face situations that test their mettle. Soon Eff has to decide whether to embrace her questionable power or deny her magical heritage altogether. This leisurely paced fantasy has all the hallmarks of an authentic frontier journal. Like a real pioneer would, Eff mostly relates the events of her unusual family’s life with little fanfare, only wavering occasionally when confessing her insecurities about being a thirteenth child. Whole seasons pass in a few sentences if there’s nothing important to impart. Eff assumes any reader of her journal would know all about the casually mentioned steam dragons and different magical traditions, so she doesn’t go into a lot of description. This is both interesting and frustrating, as I wanted to know more so I kept reading to see if there was more! Alas, there was not. Wrede challenges you to make your own pictures of her whimsical Western world with just enough details to jump start your imagination. In addition, Wrede draws neat parallels between ideas prevalent in our Old West and her fantasy version, including the philosophy of Manifest Destiny, the concept of the American melting pot, and the age old battle between book learnin’ and common sense. This odd little tome won’t be for everyone, but having said that, if you enjoyed how Wrede and her co-author Caroline Stevermer recreated Regency England with evil wizards in the charming Sorcery and Cecelia or The Enchanted Chocolate Pot, then you will most definitely want to hit the trail with Eff and Lan. And for more alternative history fun, be sure to check out Scott Westerfeld’s Leviathan.
The Thirteenth Child by Patricia C. Wrede