Monday, January 2, 2023

Thirteenth Child (Frontier Magic #1), by Patricia C. Wrede (author), Amanda Ronconi (narrator)

Audible Studios, June 2013

Eff is the thirteenth child in her family, and the elder of twins--her brother, Lan, is the seventh son of a seventh son, gifted with both great magical power and, supposedly, great luck. As the thirteenth child, Eff is, according to some folklore, destined to bring only ill luck and evil on her family.

We follow her story from age five to age eighteen. The Rothmer family is obviously a family of magicians, but this is a world in which some level of magic is common throughout society. Everyday household spells make cleaning and cooking and laundry less burdensome. Eff and Lan's father is a respected scholar--and gets an offer from a new college out west that takes them out to the frontier, where their lives will change.

They live in the country of Columbia, which was not that long ago split by a Civil War, They go by train to Mill City, not far from the great Mammoth River. On the other side of the river are great and terrible beasts, including both entirely natural beasts like mammoths, and magical ones like steam dragons. Mr. Rothmer is going to be a professor of magic, one of three, at the new college. Among the duties of the professors of magic at this land-grant college is providing support to the settlers not just on the other side of the river, but on the other side of the magical barrier that holds back the dangerous beasts, natural and magical, of the far west.

One of the things I like about this book is that relationships that start out problematic don't necessarily stay that way. Professor Graham, another of the magic professors, has very stern views on behavior and social status. He provides private tutoring to his son, William, and is shocked when Professor Rothmer decides that his children who are still of school age will attend the local day school. He disapproves strongly. But not only does he become a good working colleague for Professor Rothmer; he changes his mind about the day school when events demonstrate that the magical education there is very good indeed. (One event in particular is quite dramatic, and involves Lan and William.)

The magic teacher at this school teaches her students Avrupan (European) magic, but also Hijero-Cathayan and Aphrikan magic as well. She herself is of Aphrikan ancestry. and this proves to be important. Eff, it becomes clear, also has great magical potential, but starts having real difficulties doing any magic, because of her fears of "turning evil" because she's a thirteenth daughter. One uncle in particular really drove this lesson home, in their previous town before coming to Mill City, with not just lectures but bullying, gossip, and serious attempts to make trouble for Eff even as a small child. Her own parents' and siblings' more reasonable attitude a rather nasty, minority belief about thirteenth children, wasn't enough to completely counteract Uncle Ern's determination to see Eff punished before she's done anything at all.

Even in Mill City, her guilt and fears because of this haunt her, and she increasingly has difficulty actually doing any magic at all, no matter how hard she studies and masters the book learning part of it. It's this teacher, both directly and through a circuit magician whom she taught, who plays a major role in helping Eff confront and overcome her guilt, fears, and self-generated problems.

This is a nicely developed world. In addition to the magical systems mentioned, there are also the Rationalists--a group that believes the use of magic weakens people's natural talents and creativity. This costs them a lot of hard work, but they're not just a different flavor of religious fanatic (though that tendency appears to have some presence, as a minority attitude.) They come up with real solutions to real problems--including some things that would be harder to do with magic rather than with their inventions. And when they make their own settlement on the far side of the protective barrier, they don't fulfill expectations of a quick failure, that Professors Rothmer and Graham as well as others warned them of. People acting like adults, and respecting different beliefs and practices, is something we don't always see enough of, but we see it in this book. And we see that, without the pretense that more extreme and hateful attitudes don't exist.

What we don't see in this book is any Native Americans, or any mention of them or any of their cultures. It's a puzzling and somewhat disturbing omission. It's hard to think of any good reason why at least some of the Native American cultures, and their own magical and technological traditions, would not be present in this world.

Nevertheless, a good, and enjoyable book, and well-narrated by Ronconi.


I bought this audiobook.

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