Thirteenth Child is a children's / young adult fantasy novel by Patricia C. Wrede. It is well worth reading, although it will probably be the most enjoyable for those of us who are fans of young-adult and/or fantasy novels. It is an excellent example of magic being used to fill out a story, rather than entrancing the reader into overlooking poor writing or weak plots.

This story follows the Rothmer family over a period of about a decade. Mr. Rothmer is a well-respected magician who is offered a teaching position out west, where he will teach (and help maintain) the major spells required to protect the outlying settlements. The main protagonist of the story is his youngest daughter, Eff -- twin to his youngest son, who is the lucky (and magically gifted) seventh son. Unfortunately, as the Rothners already had five daughters as well, this makes Eff the Thirteenth child, traditionally viewed as a cursed birth. The story is largely concerned with Eff growing up under this stigma, and how she slowly comes to terms with it.

Although Eff is persecuted by family members and tormented by her peers, her parents are largely supportive of her learning magic and living a normal life. She is fortunate enough to find a teacher who doesn't believe that being the thirteenth is a curse, and is willing to teach her not only the Avrupan magics taught in most schools, but also magic in the Aphrikan and Hijero-Cathayan traditions. Even so, she is haunted by paranoia that others will discover her secret, and is half convinced that the curse is real, as she seems unable to perform even simple spells without things going drastically wrong. Fortunately, she has other interests, particularly cryptozoology. She manages to attach herself to the nature department of the university that her father teaches at, and works to forget her magical incompetence.

The story takes place in a version of early America in which Native Americans never arrived on the continent, and so the North American megafauna (i.e. terror birds and woolly rhinoceroses) still roam free. These are supplemented by magical animals, such as unicorns and dragons, but if you have ever seen a stampeding woolly mammoth heard, you will understand why the magical creatures don't get any more attention than the non-magical. The varied threats of the American wilderness have largely prevented settlers from penetrating beyond the Mississippi River (although, as there are no Native Americans to help with the naming of landmarks, it is known as the Mammoth River).

In a world where magic is so common, and practiced by nearly everyone, science has naturally not developed much past the development of the steam engine -- however, I hasten to add that this is not steampunk (perhaps magicpunk?). Magic does not take the form of malevolent magicians in flowing gowns, elves, and knights fighting dragons; this is a much calmer and more practical type of magic, in which small spells are used in everyday life to help lighten loads and dry the laundry. Large spells are used to keep roaming woolly mammoths from outpost settlements, but there are no flying carpets or armies of daemons. Despite magic being extremely common and a major part of the plot, it is surprisingly low-key, and the story is the better for it.

Reading this book I was reminded of both The Golden Compass and Seventh Son, although both of those are somewhat more dramatic than Thirteenth Child, with fantastical evil supervillains. This story is much more down-to-earth, and the biggest evils to be seen are common ignorance and mundane malice, and the occasional natural disaster. It is very much in the spirit of the traditional growing-up story, somewhat like Little House on the Prairie or Little Women -- although clearly in an exceptional setting. It is an excellent mix.

This is the first of the Frontier Magic books; the second book is Across the Great Barrier. Patricia C. Wrede has had a good bit of success with her other Victorian-era magic novels (Mairelon the Magician, Sorcery and Cecelia, etc.), so I expect this series will continue to expand in the next few years.

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