I was pretty excited for this book. I mean, it’s a frontier wild west story, but with magic. Cowboys + magic = good, right? It’s certainly original. Plus, I’d heard nothing but good things about Patricia Wrede’s writing, so when I picked this one up from the library, I was anxious to get started.
The Plot (Goodreads synopsis)
Eff was born a thirteenth child. Her twin brother, Lan, is the seventh son of a seventh son. This means he’s supposed to possess amazing talent — and she’s supposed to bring only bad things to her family and her town. Undeterred, her family moves to the frontier, where her father will be a professor of magic at a school perilously close to the magical divide that separates settlers from the beasts of the wild.
“Wow, that’s an awfully short synopsis,” you’re probably thinking.
Yes, yes it is. And you know why?
…Well, I’ll tell you in a minute. I have such mixed feelings about this book, I’m going to have to break it up into pieces.
Absolutely stellar world building. As far as the setting goes, this book is Oregon Trail meets Harry Potter. The magic was well thought out and intricate, the frontier setting was vivid, and the spells and magical creatures (steam dragons and mammoths guys!) were seamlessly woven into the story.
Also, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin were magicians. YES. That happened.
After I finished the book, it was brought to my attention that Patricia Wrede made the decision to write Native Americans out of her narrative, because she didn’t like any of the stereotypical ways to portray Native Americans in westerns. And a lot of people are bothered by this, and I can see why.
BUT, I think it says something for the world building that I honestly didn’t notice that glaring omission until it was pointed out to me. Even though I am well aware that there were Native Americans present in the wild west, and now that I realize they were missing from the book, it seems like it should have been obvious. But her world actually made so much sense that I didn’t realize it didn’t make sense until the book was over.
There were a lot of characters in this book. A. Lot. I mean, from the title and synopsis, right away you know that there’s at least 13 kids in Eff’s family running around. And then of course there’s her parents, and teachers, and friends, and her parents’ friends, and her friends’ friends, and also some assorted townspeople.
Ahem. There are many characters.
Some of them — including most of Eff’s siblings — flicker in and out of the book so fast, I forgot they ever existed or what their purpose was. Others stick around for a while, and I still was not sure what their purpose was. (Like William. What purpose did William serve, exactly?) Really, the only characters that get developed are Eff, Lan, their parents, and a couple of their teachers.
But even then, I’m not sure if they actually get developed, or if I just thought they did through prolonged exposure, because I read about them so often.I think the characters I came closest to really liking were Eff’s parents, but still, I couldn’t tell you much about them as people.
Now would be the time to point out that this book is told in the first person, from Eff’s perspective, and spans about 14 years of her life. It starts when she is 4 or 5 and ends when she is 18. I do not actually have a problem with books that span a long time frame — several of my favorite books and series do this — but in this book, it didn’t work for me. Partially because of the lack of plot, which I’ll get into in a minute. But as far as characters go, it didn’t work because no matter how old Eff was, she talked like she was 11. Which worked for the one chapter where she was 11, and not so much for…all the other ones.
It’s sad, because Eff really is an interesting character. Or she has the potential to be interesting, at any rate. She is born into a magical family. She’s a twin. Her brother is viewed by everyone as super-special, while she is viewed as unlucky. She undergoes some pretty appalling psychological abuse at the hands of her uncle when she is young. These are the makings of a fascinating character. But she just kind of stays the same. Pity.
Okay, as I mentioned above about the short synopsis, the reason for that is: This book had no plot.
Say what? It’s a magical western with no plot? Well, pretty much. I mean, it had characters, and they were faced with kinda sorta a conflict that they more or less solved…so I guess in that sense it had a plot. It just wasn’t what I expected.
But honestly, if a book spans over a decade in time, and is a western, with magic and dragons and mammoths, you’d think a plot wouldn’t be too hard to come by, right? But you would be wrong, at least in the case of this book. It’s like Patricia Wrede got so caught up in her fantastic world building that she forgot to introduce conflict to the story (even Eff’s “thirteenth child” stigma is pretty quickly solved by moving to a place where no one knows how many siblings she has. Easy peasy).
Until the last few chapters, where all of a sudden there is a conflict, and that conflict is lame. There’s not any real sense of urgency or investment, and then it is solved, and the book is done. And I’m all like, “Huh. Nothing really happened in that book.”
So. Would I recommend this book? Um, maybe. If you just want to read about a really interesting world that’s described incredibly well, then you definitely want to pick this one up. If you like westerns and stories that follow a family over many years, then you may also want to check this one out. If you want action and magical shenanigans and tension and conflict, you’re going to want to look elsewhere.