So, I just re-read the latter two books in Patricia Wrede’s Thirteenth Daughter trilogy – Across the Great Barrier and The Far West – which as you may recall is set in an alternate-history world around the time of the Lewis and Clark Expedition. In this world, that expedition took place a few years ago, but Lewis and Clark disappeared somewhere out west, presumably killed by natural or magical wildlife, or possibly by weather or other misfortune.
This is a fascinating world, with plenty of echoes of our world and many correspondences with our own history and with real historical figures, but at the same time a very different history. For one thing, if prehistoric humans ever crossed the Baring Land Bridge, they must have all been killed by the wildlife, because there obviously weren’t any indigenous people when Columbia (the Americas) were discovered by Avropeans (Europeans). For another, wow, wildlife. A lot of Ice Age animals are still around, such as mammoths and giant beavers and dire wolves. There are also plenty of magical animals: Not just dragons, but “swarming weasels” and “jeweled mink,” which are almost like normal animals; and giant invisible foxes and basilisk-like giant lizards that turn animals (and people) to stone, and so on. You can see why it might’ve been quite difficult for humans to get established on this continent. Eighty years ago, Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin set up a massive, massive magic spell along the Mississippi (the Mammoth River), the Great Barrier, to keep dangerous wildlife away from established towns and cities. Almost everyone lives to the east of the river. The west is still almost entirely unknown.
This world provides a great backdrop to the story, which is a slow-paced YA coming-of-age story featuring Eff as the first-person protagonist. Eff is the thirteenth child in a family with fourteen children, twin to Lan, who is seventh son of a seventh son and therefore possesses a lot of potential for magical power. Eff, as the thirteenth child, is considered by some to be unlucky and that belief sets up her basic character arc for the first book. In the second and third books, she is largely past that uncertainty and growing into herself.
I’d read the first book a couple of times, but the latter two only once when each came out, and, a bit to my surprise, I turned out to have forgotten nearly everything about them. Reading them again now was almost like reading them for the first time. Since they’re by Patricia Wrede, you’d expect them to be beautifully written, and they are. This trilogy is something of a departure for Wrede, as it is very much world-focused. Wrede provides just enough development of the characters to provide human context to the world, and barely enough plot to justify calling this a story rather than a travelogue through a fictional world. As it happens, I quite like travelogues, as long as they’re well-written and the world is neat and the characters are even reasonably well-drawn. This is a delightful world to explore and I was very happy to accompany Eff and Lan and everyone else on their journeys into the far west and back again.
So, all this puts me in mind of a fantasy subgenre that is very small, but that I like a lot: fantasy novels where the point is to show off the world, generally by means of a long journey through the world. In stories of this type, the world takes center stage and the journey through the world is distinctly more important than the action or quest or whatever the plot involves. I do like the characters to be appealing enough and well-developed enough to carry a story, so that the book doesn’t exactly like reading a travelogue, but in stories of this type, the plot is almost not important to me at all.
This subgenre includes, oh, let me see … Naomi Novik’s Temeraire series, for example. Also the Lady Trent series by Marie Brennan. Also, arguably, stories such as The Clan of the Cave Bear, where a little bit of plot is wrapped around a whole lot of Pleistocene travelogue. But today I’d like to focus on a subgenre of the subgenre: fantasy novels set in an alternate Old West. Two such stories spring to mind:
Gold Seer trilogy by Rae Carson. There’s something of a plot, and the characterization is good, but this is another novel where the journey itself is a lot of the story. There’s a reason for the journey, and once in California we spend some time with the characters as they establish a settlement and handle various problems. But we spend a lot of time on the journey itself. Again, the focus here is on an alternate Old West. In this case, very different from Wrede’s story, there is almost no magic at all. You could practically read this as a real story about traveling west during the Goldrush era. It has a tremendous flavor of real history.
I loved this trilogy, but have only read it once. It’s another one I should read again.
The Devil’s West trilogy by Laura Anne Gilman. Very similar in some ways to the above, this is yet another series where the world features an alternate Old West. In this case, the map of North America echoes real history, with a small number of states in the east and the Spanish colonies in the west, but with this big, big region in the middle section of the continent belongs to the “Devil” – a powerful magical entity who is not actually the Christian Devil. Lots of puzzling, often obscure, dangerous magic all through this region.
The worldbuilding is fantastic, complicated, and sort of in between the other two trilogies in how far removed from our real history it is. I loved the first book, liked the second, but did feel the third sort of fell down on the job of ending the series.
How about you all, any stories you’ve read and enjoyed that place fantasy in a setting derived from the Old West?