Historically, the life of a pioneer was one of great danger, even without woolly mammoths and steam dragons to contend with. The world of Patricia C. Wrede’s Frontier Magic series brings all manner of treacherous creatures and magical phenomena to the western frontier of an alternate United States.
The story is set in the United States of “Columbia” where three schools of magic (Avrupan, Aphrikan, and Hijero-Cathayan) are practiced. Beyond the inclusion of magic, there are other delightfully quirky touches to Wrede’s alternate history, such as the northern country of Vinland, settled permanently by pre-Columbian Vikings.
The second book in a series, Across the Great Barrier connects directly to its prequel, Thirteenth Child. The protagonist, Eff Rothmer, begins her first-person narration where the previous story finished. Whereas Thirteenth Child covers most of Eff’s childhood into her young adulthood, Across the Great Barrier takes place across only a few years. When Eff finishes upper school, she embarks on a new adventure on the other side of the Mammoth (Mississippi) River as an assistant to a Vinlander, Professor Torgeson.
Eff is a very aware narrator, partly from her naturalist’s eye and partly from the world-sensing magic she uses to survey the magical nuances of her environment. She is perceptive, which ensures that the strange wildlife and social tensions of Wrede’s unique world are sufficiently described. Eff is also introspective, allowing readers to solve the plot’s mysteries as she does. Her seriousness does not interfere with her humor and stubborn charm, and she makes for an immensely likable protagonist.
Romantic prospects are scarce for Eff, even though she turns twenty towards the end of the book. This is not as disappointing as it might seem since the story is centered on her personal quest of self-definition and fulfillment. Still, there is room for the hope that she may yet fall in love.
The second book in a trilogy can easily suffer from a lack of self-contained plot and serve only as a segue between the first and third books. Across the Great Barrier has its own story arc, but a few new secondary characters seem designed for plot points not reached within the book. Vivid dream sections, which are often frustratingly irrelevant or obvious in many narratives, narrowly avoid this fate due to Eff’s deliberate analysis. The dreams hint at a larger storyline connected to the mysterious magic pendant Eff wears, but it is mostly unaddressed within the novel. The mysteries of the untraveled territory also leave plenty unresolved for the third book, The Far West, release date to be announced.
Across the Great Barrier is a worthwhile read for those who appreciate creative history, imaginative magic, and sensible heroines. The Wild West has never been quite so wild, nor has it ever been quite so enchantingly magical.
Bridget is a high school senior who is delighted to be writing (a favorite activity) about books (a favorite subject). Her favorite genre is fantasy, but she has been known to have an eclectic taste. Her other loves are music, dancing, and history.