Eff is back in this alternative magical history of the settling of the West. After the encounter with the mirror bugs that almost destroyed most of the settlements across the Great Barrier and came close to killing Eff’s brother and father, Eff gets hired on to a small expedition to chart the extent of the mirror bugs’ devastation. What they find surprises everyone — magic has completely disappeared from the soil and all the magical plants and animals are gone. As their journeys continue, they find further evidence of large scale migrations of animals as they respond to the changes in their habitat. But what is even stranger is that it looks like animals are fleeing something in the unexplored West — something that has the capacity to turn animals to stone in an instant. Animals… and humans.
Across the Great Barrier, the sequel to Patricia Wrede’s The Thirteenth Child, is a fast-paced adventure of a fantasy tale. Eff has come to terms with her past as an unlucky thirteenth child and has started to make a place for herself in the frontier college town. When she has the opportunity to cross the Great Barrier she jumps at the chance to go explore new territories. Out on the frontier, though, she has to come to grips with her own power, and her mixed and muddled training in multiple schools of magic makes her power even more unpredictable.
I particularly enjoyed Eff having to really deal with all of the emotional baggage of her upbringing. Too many times in fantasy novels, the hero has the ah-ha moment and then everything changes in the blink of an eye. Even through Eff knows intellectually that she isn’t cursed, it takes her the whole book to work through the effects that her own upbringing has had on her training. And when it comes to having to confront the disastrous effects of her brother’s magic use, it is her willingness to work through the problems that she has had in the past that allows her to see a solution that other people have overlooked.
I also enjoyed Wrede’s attention to ecological detail. The landscape is a major character in this series of books, and watching it deal with the traumas dealt to it in the previous book with an attention to scientific detail is gratifying. I have a soft spot for academics as characters, and appreciated the accuracy with which Wrede is able to depict the internecine relationships of practicing academics, regardless of time or place.
The ending is a little pat, but it looks like this is the middle book in a trilogy — or second book in a longer series — as the ending is put in place through opening up the possibility for greater adventures. As a middle book, it does have some of the problems familiar to tales in that place in the sequence, but avoids the frequent flaw of having no interesting or necessary action take place that creates an interesting story in its own right. This fast reading tale — it doesn’t feel anything close to its 300+ pages — is a great adventure story for young adult readers. Even though the hero is female, the Western setting and original characters will draw in some of the more open-minded boy readers as well. I fully expect Wrede to revisit this setting in the future and look forward to additional adventures with Eff and her family.