I heard about this book through the Book Smugglers’ blog, and, since I’ve loved Patricia Wrede’s other books (the Enchanted Forest books, her short stories, the Mairelon the magician books and her collaborations with Caroline Stevermer), I got this one as an e-book.
In an alternative universe version of the United States, where magic exists and is often used, Eff (really Francine) Rothmer and her twin brother, Lan, are the youngest in their family; while this makes Lan a seventh son of a seventh son, and thus very lucky, this also makes Eff a thirteenth child, bound for evil and bad luck, as most of her aunts, uncles and cousins are only too eager to point out to her:
“Uncle Earn and Aunt Janna disagreed. They said Mama and Papa ought to have drowned me as soon as Lan was safely born, and it wasn’t too late yet if they just had the resolution.”
Poor Eff grows up, therefore, with a crippling sense of her own potential bad luck, and it’s only when her parents decide to leave Helvan Shores when the twins are five, for the western frontier town of Mill City, that things start to change. Beyond the magical Great Barrier, strange and magical creatures such as unicorns, spectral bears and steam dragons live, and woolly mammoths and rhinoceroses; any settlers living west of the barrier need their own magicians to keep the homesteads safe. Eff and Lan’s father has been offered a position to teach at the new land-grant college in Mill City; he’s a very good practical magician, and is looking forward to teaching in a pace where there are no established traditions to overset.
Eff and Lan make friends with William Graham, whose father is the other professor of magic at the college: there’s a certain amount of tension between Professor Graham’s way of educating his son and the more relaxed and egalitarian instincts of the Rothmers, who send their children to the day school. There’s also a certain amount of uneasiness regarding the westernmost settlements, and the dangers involved in pushing further west. Eff and Lan learn magic from Miss Ochiba when they turn nine, not just the Avrupan method that most settlers know, but the Hijero-Cathayan, and the Aphrikan.
The book quickly skips over the next few years, where the Society of Progressive Rationalists (who don’t believe in using magic) are introduced, Eff gets ill with rheumatic fever and has to stay back a grade, meaning Lan is now a year ahead of her, and the wedge between them gets bigger. Firstly Eff, and then William and Lan, and some of the other pupils, start extra magic lessons with Miss Ochiba. As the children grow up, Eff gets more worried about her potential powers, but she doesn’t see that Lan isn’t exactly using his powers for good, despite his seventh-son status. And Eff finally decides what she wants to do when Lan goes off east to boarding school – she wants to be a naturalist, and starts working for Professor Jeffries.
It’s only in the last third of the book, once Eff and Lan are turning sixteen, that the book gets going with actual plot – the appearance of grubs and bugs which are eating at everything the settlers plant, and a result, many of the farms are close to failure. An expedition is mounted to try and find out why the Rationalist settlement is less affected, and Eff and Lan are part of it.
I really enjoyed this, though I do feel that Wrede took a long time to show Eff growing up (or perhaps not long enough – there are certainly plenty of events and details to have made the years at Mill City a whole book). Her characters are rounded and three-dimensional, and Eff’s worries and insecurity about being a thirteenth child are entirely understandable. Having so many elder siblings does make them a bit interchangeable at first, but by the time of the move to Mill City, the elder children are left in the east, having married or carrying on with their studies. While the United States she imagines is like the real one, with its history of slavery and the Secession War, and there are important black characters, such as Miss Ochiba and Washington Morris (who is a circuit-rider and travelling magician), it isn’t the same. The mores are similar to the real nineteenth century – such as the attitude her family have towards Rennie’s elopement – though complicated by the magical element to human society.
As a Briton, I might not have noticed the fact that there is no mention at all of Native American peoples: that Columbia was completely uninhabited (except by animals) before the Avrupan (equivalent to European) and Aphrikan (equivalent to African) settlers came. But the Book Smugglers pointed this out, and the comments on Jo Walton’s review on the Tor blog revealed the anger many people felt about this omission. I can see why Wrede might have done this – by making the continent uninhabited she doesn’t have to consider the rights and wrongs of colonising. However, I can also see why this easy way out has angered people. After all, she mentions slavery (though she also mentions Aphrikan colonies in the south – Mexico? – so that she has already changed the history of black people in America), and eminent people such as Jefferson and Franklin are portrayed as having existed in this version of America.
This missing piece of the story made me a little uncomfortable while reading, but I think it’s because I was warned of its absence before I started the book: I’m afraid to say that I probably wouldn’t have spotted it without (which may be because I’m British and know only the obvious things about US history).
Apart from this, Wrede does a nice job of presenting magic in the real world, the conflicting political tensions between East and West, between magicians and non-magic users, and between the narrow-minded and the more tolerant. Those more familiar with the geography of the US will probably be able to identify New Bristol, Mill City and Helvan Shores, not to mention the Mammoth River, but the sense of landscape is oddly lacking for a book set in an only recently settled land.
I did enjoy this, notwithstanding the above-mentioned reservations, and will probably look out for the next in the series, since I liked Eff a lot, and sympathised with her uncertainties.