RogerBW's Blog

Thirteenth Child, Patricia C. Wrede 15 July 2019

2009 fantasy. In a parallel 19th century America, Eff's twin brother Lan is the seventh son of a seventh son, so that means he's lucky, and he'll probably become a great wizard. But Eff is a thirteenth child, which means that everyone knows that sooner or later she'll turn bad.

There's no infodumping of the background, but the New World is Columbia, there was a Secession War that ended in 1838, and the three major schools of magic are Avrupan, Aphrikan, and Hijero-Cathayan. But while there's a solid alternate history being constructed just out of sight, this is also a worldbuilding homage to American frontier fiction, and the simple hardworking life that doesn't seem to have got that much easier with the availability of housekeeping spells.

There are also no Native Americans. Some people have found this a reason not to read the book.

There's a Great Barrier spell (constructed by Franklin and Jefferson!) which keeps the monsters out of the eastern lands, but the settlers beyond that have to cope with steam dragons, swarming weasels, and worse things. Eff's family moves to a town just inside that barrier, and the bulk of the book is about her life going to school, making friends, and learning about magic. Towards the end there's an expedition to the settlements west of the Barrier.

This does mean the book moves quite slowly, without a great deal in the way of exciting action. Which is fine with me, but if you were expecting the faster pace of the Lyra books or even the humour of the Enchanted Forest series you'll be disappointed. Eff's self-doubt and hesitation sometimes get to be a bit much.

On the other hand there are subtle characterisations here, and something that I think is a first in my reading of fantasy: a group of people opposed to the use of magic who are not narrow-minded witch-burning fanatics, but who think that as the easy answer to every problem the use of magic cuts off the development of knowledge and understanding of anything that isn't magic.

Followed by Across the Great Barrier.

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Series: Frontier Magic | Next in series: Across the Great Barrier

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