Reviewed by Ruth Berman
[This review originally appeared in Mythprint 47:1 (#330) in January 2010.]
“Little House” meets Hogwarts, so to speak. With so many school-of-magicians stories following the British model of Etonian or Oxbridge schools, it’s struck me for some time that it would be nice to have a US school-of-magicians story set at a land-grant college, with a more populist readiness to welcome all students, less cushy financing, and more arguments with the state (in this case territorial) overseers. And that’s what Patricia C. Wrede has done in The Thirteenth Child. The Rothmer family in an alternate-world Columbia (US) moves from Helvan Shores (Chicago?) to the recently settled, raw pioneer town of Mill City (St. Paul? St. Anthony Falls?) on the Mammoth river so that their father can take a post teaching magic at the town’s new land-grant college.
Mammoth River is a cleverly punning name. It’s called that because west of the river, on the Great Plains and points west, are many animals that died out in our universe, including mammoths. But “Mississippi” means actually “big water.” Also west of the river are dangerous magical animals, such as steam-dragons and a sort of locust that eats up not only all the crops but all the magic. Advances in agricultural magic are badly needed to protect the new western settlements.
The two youngest children in the family are Lan, the lucky, magically gifted seventh son of a seventh son, and his older twin Eff (for Francine), who is expected by the more superstitious to grow up to be dangerously evil, as the unlucky 13th , and the story follows Eff as she finds that she has strong magical powers of her own, and no more of a bad temper than other children (such as Lan, for instance), and no need to turn evil if she pays attention to her choices. She is aided by learning non-Avrupan (non-European) magic from a Black teacher, Miss Ochiba. (Avrupan magic is more analytical; Aphrikan magic, and apparently also Hijero-Cathayan, or Chinese-Asian magic, are more holistic). A drawback in the story is that we don’t find out anything at all about where the Native Americans are and what their magic would be like (are they around somewhere although not entering into the story?—did they die out before the Avrupans arrived?—were they totally exterminated by the settlers?—are they going to show up in a sequel?) Eff and Lan and their proliferating relatives are deftly characterized, and the final battle, against those ravenous bugs, makes a nice change from the more obviously dangerous steam-dragons that would show up instead in a more conventional plot.