Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Book Report: More Victoriana

I guess I was more tired from the weekend than I realized because yesterday wasn't as productive as I hoped it would be. I did some freelance work and a lot of laundry, then did some editing on the book and planned how to fix the current chapter, but actual writing didn't happen and then I was in bed by 10 because I couldn't stay awake. Today, though, there will be writing.

I mentioned last week that I was on a Victoriana kick, and it continues with this week's book report, Thirteenth Child by Patricia C. Wrede. This is an alt-history fantasy set in an American frontier where the west is dangerous because it's inhabited by mammoths, dragons, and various magical creatures. There's a big magical shield along the Mammoth River (I think it's our Mississippi), and settlement beyond the shield is very risky. The settlements have to put up their own magical shields, and there are circuit-riding magicians who visit the settlements to maintain the shields.

Into this world is born Eff, short for Francine. Her father is a seventh son, which makes him a powerful magician, and her twin brother is the seventh son of a seventh son, which makes him extra-powerful and lucky. But Eff is the thirteenth child in the family, which tradition says is unlucky, and people generally believe she's doomed to go bad or become evil. In part because of the way Eff is viewed, her father takes a job as professor at a land grant college in a town on the banks of the river, on the edge of the settled territory, where he'll be training magicians to help with the settlement efforts. Because the older children in the family have already married and are out on their own, no one in this new place should realize that Eff is a thirteenth child, though she's acutely self-conscious of it and afraid of what it will mean for her and for her family.

I would classify this as a "girl grows up" book, since much of it is slice-of-life stuff about growing up on the edge of the frontier. It follows Eff from age six to eighteen as we get snapshots of major events along the way while skimming over some years entirely. Since it's from a child's perspective, the major events happen on the periphery, and she only gradually becomes aware of what's really going on. The real "action" of the book comes at the end when she's nearly an adult and has to overcome all her fears about herself and put everything she's learned into practice in order to save the people she loves. This book is the first in a planned series, and it looks like it's mostly the set-up, while the series will follow her adventures now that she's grown up.

When I was a kid living in Oklahoma, I loved those "growing up on the prairie" books. I would have called this "Little House on the Prairie with Magic" except I didn't like those books (mostly because the TV show was popular when I was a kid, and I hated it). The book I would most compare this to from my childhood is so obscure it stretched my search engine skills to find it, it's not available at Project Gutenberg or any other book repository I've found, there were two used copies at Amazon (at a really high price), and other online used bookstores had only a "notify me if this book becomes available" button. This book was called Cricket, so you can imagine that searching for it got me a lot of books about bugs or sports. The author, Forestine Hooker, had grown up at Fort Sill, where I lived, and the book was about a girl growing up there during the 1800s, so it was very popular on base. There were story times on the Old Post Square where a woman in period dress would read excerpts from the book, there were multiple copies of the book in the school library, every girl read it, and we all knew which house on the square was Cricket's house. I could have sworn that you could buy copies at the base museum, but it seems like if those were still available, they'd have found their way to Amazon or Gutenberg (and a quick search found the museum shop, but they don't have this book. But now I kind of want to re-visit the post, as I'm feeling very nostalgic). Apparently, this wasn't this author's most famous book, as there's another one of hers that shows up everywhere.

Anyway, that's what this book reminds me of, a story about living on a settlement on the edge of the frontier, where life was relatively safe but surrounded by potential danger, and being a more or less ordinary kid in that situation. The magical system is interesting, and the book spends a lot of time on the magical education. Meanwhile there are chores to do and there's mischief with her brother and friends. I enjoyed reading it, but I'm really looking forward to the sequel because now that the situation is established, there's a lot of interesting stuff that can happen.

This does seem to validate my belief that magic makes everything better in fiction. Now I need to find a Jane Eyre-style governess story with magic and a Madeleine Brent plucky orphan with exotic skills story with magic and I'll be deliriously happy.

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