November 2, 2010

Go West

Being raised in the Wild West -- albeit a rather shady and all too 20th century version of it -- I have a bit of a fondness for frontier tales. Or maybe it is a remnant from my devouring all of Laura Ingalls Wilder's books when I was 7. Either way, I really enjoy the period. I also enjoy manipulations of the theme: steampunk frontier, space frontier, romantic frontier. But there is a distinct shortage of frontier magic. Until now.

Thirteenth Child by Patricia C. Wrede

Wrede is very good at alternative history, as we can see in what she terms Regency Magic*. So naturally, I had pretty high hopes for her latest novel, billed as a YA fantasy work. Then I read the book in a few hours on Halloween.

It is a rich novel, and long-ish for YA, so I generally would have expected it to take a few savored afternoons. Instead, I got up to make dinner and when I came back to the book, I noticed I only had about 20 pages left. The book was that good.

Okay, so now that I've built it up so much you are almost guaranteed to find it lacking, let's talk about the work itself. The U.S. frontier parallels the one we know from history lessons and Western movies, but differs in enough key aspects to be foreign and exotic. Magic, for one, is everywhere, as magicians, magical creatures, magical dangers. The nation we know as the U.S. has still separated from what we call England -- Columbia and Albion, respectively in Wrede's west -- but the Civil War happened decades earlier, Lewis and Clark never made it back from their expedition, and Ben Franklin and Thomas Jefferson were genius magicians. In this strange, delicious, wild land, there is a girl, the thirteenth child of her parents and twin to a seventh son of a seventh son, called Eff.

When her parents decide to relocate, Eff is moved from the industrial and familiar east to the far edges of the frontier, at the edge of the Mammoth River that splits the continent. She is caught up in the adventures the frontier life brings, complicated by her own magic (and her mixed feelings on such) and the magic of the land, by turns terrifying and breathtaking. This is only the first book for Wrede's Frontier Magic, and while the end of the novel is a satisfying one, and not really a cliff-hanger, I am nonetheless greedy for Book Two's publication next August.

I think I like this book in part because it does what Wrede always does well, create relatable young heroines and entangle them in sticky-sweet relationships much like those her readers experience. She always places these characters in rich settings, with adventure-rich plots veined in magic. In short, she is a very good YA fantasist. But she is also a great novelist in that each of her books feels new, in a way that so much of the available reading out there today doesn't. Even though the frontier setting should be almost cliche by now, she gives it such new life with her interpretation that I couldn't help but turn page after page. Any author who can make the cliche seem new earns high marks by my count.

Read this book. Read her entire bibliography. I know I'm gushing by this point, but she deserves it. And so, my friend, do you.

*Mairelon the Magician
was a beloved book as a child, and its sequel The Magician's Ward (now combined in an omnibus A Matter of Magic) is a go-to when I have a craving for a sweet romance (with costumes!). I definitely recommend them, once you've finished Thirteenth Child and need more. And when you want even more, read her Enchanted Forest Chronicles. They are pretty much perfect.

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