Pioneer Fantasy: Patricia Wrede’s Thirteenth Child

Patricia C. Wrede has always been good at writing books with charm and the kind of narrative flow that means you can’t put them down, and Thirteenth Child is her best book yet.

You know how some books have “high concept” or “elevator pitches” where you can explain what they’re about very snappily, and others you just flounder? The elevator pitch for Thirteenth Child would be “Little House on the Prairie with mammoths and magic.”

This is an alternate version of our world which is full of magic, and where America (“Columbia”) was discovered empty of people but full of dangerous animals, many of them magical. In this world the frontier is perilous and settlements need magicians to protect them, but the railroads are creeping across the continent and covered wagons are crossing the Great Barrier that runs along the Mississippi. Our narrator, Eff Rothmer, has a wonderful folksy first person voice, which is what carries this book out of the ordinary:

Everybody knows that a seventh son is lucky. Things come a little easier for him, all his life long; love and money and the unexpected turn that brings good fortune from bad circumstances. A lot of seventh sons go for magicians, because if there’s one sort of work that’s more useful than any other it’s making magic.

Eff is born thirteenth, supposed to be unlucky, and her twin Lan, born fourteenth, is the seventh son of a seventh son. The family dynanics, the frontier town they move to, to get away from the relatives, the way Eff studies Aphrikan magic as well as Avropan—there’s a lot about this book that’s just plain charming. Also, as I may have mentioned, it has mammoths and other megafauna, as well as the magical animals. It has Rationalists, who believe you ought to live without magic, even when threatened by it all around, and it has spells for keeping bugs away and making the laundry easier. It does the thing I’m never happy about where some of the names are recognisable and some aren’t, where you have Avropa instead of Europe but you still have Socrates and Thomas Jefferson, but that’s about the only nit I have to pick with the worldbuilding.

It has seemed to me for a long time that there’s plenty of urban fantasy set in the modern US, but not enough of the fantasy of America, secondary worlds that “are” American history in the way most are western European history. For ages all I could point at was Card’s Alvin Maker books. Now, in addition to this, there are Bujold’s Sharing Knife books, and Emma Bull’s Territory and the promised sequel. It seems there’s a recent explosion of them coming out of Minneapolis—and I think that’s just dandy. They’re all doing really different things with the idea, and I like them all—but for sheer enjoyment of reading, I like Thirteenth Child better than any of them because it’s just so much fun. It’s not the mammoths—well, not just the mammoths. It’s Eff’s voice and the characters and the way the magic works and feels so real and the way Eff worries about going bad, the way thirteenth children are supposed to..

I’ve been waiting for this book since I first heard Pat talk about the idea years ago, and I am not disappointed—but now I’m waiting just as eagerly for the sequels.

It’s published as Young Adult, which means that’s where you’re likely to find it in the bookstore. I think I’d have liked it when I was YA age, and I still like it. Buy it for young people, buy it for yourself—YA publication does have the advantage that it’s only $16.99 for the hardback.


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