A combination of Fire, Little House on the Prairie, and Harry Potter, Thirteenth Child by Patricia C. Wrede swept me away to an alternate history of the United States and a Wild West where mystical beasts roam the wilderness, and magic is read about in newspapers instead of fairy tales.
The story follows Eff, a young girl unfortunately born the thirteenth child, which in her world gets her labeled as a pariah and a social outcast. She is the twin of a lucky fourteenth child, a brother who is blessed with an innate magical ability. Eff’s life begins to change drastically when her magician-professor father decides to move the family out west to a border town on the edge of civilization.
Traumatized from a young age by local superstition surrounding her birth, convinced that she was born evil and unlucky, Thirteenth Child tells Eff’s journey from childhood through high school. Eff proved to be an interesting new brand of heroine; there are hardly any descriptions of what she looks like physically, which I found refreshing in a story featuring a female lead character. I was able to insert myself in to her shoes, focusing more on her emotional development and growth from a self-doubting girl in to a more confident young woman.
Wrede does a wonderful job making this fantasy world feel rooted in our own past; steam dragons and mammoths seem like very believable parts of the uncharted territories of the Wild West. The fusion of history and fantasy is one of my favorite hybrids because when done right, the two can really highlight the strengths of each genre. Even though Eff lives in a place where magic and spells are a part and parcel of everyday life, it feels like a very natural part of that world.
At times the tale moves a bit slowly, hence my reference to Laura Ingalls Wilder, in terms of content as well as pacing, but I was so caught up in the lovely details of life in the Wild West, the complicated politics of settlers and college magicians, and Eff’s coming to terms with her own blossoming magical abilities, that I didn’t mind the rather plodding pace. This is also the first book in a trilogy, and after the adventurous ending, I trust that Wrede will up the ante in the next books in the series, perhaps capturing more of the gusto she is known for in her other works like The Enchanted Forest Chronicles.