Eff (don’t ever call her by her full name, Francine) was the thirteenth child born in her family, a circumstance that is considered not only unlucky but disastrous in her culture. Her twin brother, Lan, born just a few minutes later, was not only the fourteenth child in the family but the seventh son of a seventh son which makes him not just lucky but also gives him extra-special magic powers. While her entire community discriminates against Eff from the very start of her life, Lan is treated with reverence and even a bit of fear.
As enticing as that beginning sounds, the setting of this novel is even more fascinating. It is set in the United States during the time of pioneers and western expansion, but it is an alternative history, where magic is an integral part of everyday life. Certain facts of history are the same as our own history but other aspects differ. For instance, there was still a war between the states, but it was known as the Secession War, and it occurred several decades earlier than our own Civil War.
The Great Barrier Spell protects all of the states and territories east of the Mammoth River (aka Mississippi River) from both natural and magical wildlife. The bears and mammoths, sphinx cats and steam dragons, and all the other dangerous wildlife are unable to cross the barrier, allowing people to live peacefully and without fear. But, after the war, westward expansion booms as the nation’s need for more space grows, and more and more families join settlements west of the Great Barrier Spell. Each settlement is required to have its own magician, someone professionally trained to help maintain the settlement’s protection spells.
In that setting, Eff (living in a town just east of the Great Barrier Spell, on the edge of the western frontier) struggles to overcome the challenge of her birth order, with her family’s support. She and Lan go to school, become friends with their next-door neighbor, and learn magic, but Eff is constantly worried that something terrible will happen to her or those she loves.
This novel has everything: adventure, magic, friendship, and family, with details of pioneer life added in. It is fast-paced and exciting with a warmth and depth uncommon in many adventure stories. Kids that enjoyed the Little House books or Hagrid’s Care of Magical Creatures class in Harry Potter will especially love Eff and Lan’s world. And when you finish The Thirteenth Child and are dying to hear more, there are two more sequels already released to keep you reading happily.
NOTE: The Frontier Magic trilogy is officially labeled as teen fiction, but I’m halfway through the second book and think they would be perfectly appropriate for older middle-grade readers, too.