Patricia Wrede’s Enchanted Forest Chronicles is one of my favorite comfort reads. I discovered this YA quartet in middle school and read and re-read it obsessively. I loved the fractured fairy tale humor, the engaging protagonists, and especially the physicality of its system of magic–I could imagine how it would feel to use magic in Wrede’s world. I’ve enjoyed other Wrede books tremendously, especially the Mairelon the Magician books and Sorcery and Cecelia (co-written with Caroline Stevermer), but none quite lived up to the Enchanted Forest Chronicles for me. I think it’s always hard to replicate the experience of encountering just the right book at just the right time.
All of that brings me to Wrede’s Frontier Magic trilogy: Thirteenth Child, Beyond the Great Barrier, and The Far West. These YA charmers are quick reads and contain some truly marvelous worldbuilding in an alternate-universe version of the nineteenth-century United States. But I finished the trilogy a bit disappointed by the pacing and characterization, two things that Wrede usually excels at.
Eff Rothmer is the youngest daughter of a very large family. Her twin brother Lan seems to have been marked for greatness since the moment of his birth — he is the seventh son of a seventh son, and therefore destined to be a powerful magician. Eff, on the other hand, is a thirteenth child — and nearly everyone except for her parents seems to be waiting for her to go bad and bring ill luck to everyone around her.
Eff’s parents don’t believe she’ll bring bad luck to anyone, and they are also wary of what will happen if Lan spends his childhood constantly being told how special and important he is. So the Rothmers make a dramatic decision: they will relocate to the Frontier, close to the Great Barrier Spell that protects settlers from the wildlife that roams the Western part of the Columbian continent, and will make a new life where people seem to care much less about seventh sons or thirteenth children. Eff’s father accepts a position as a professor at a new university out west and off the family goes.
The rest of the books follow Eff’s path through school and young adulthood. Even out West, Eff is terrified that her status as a thirteenth child will hurt the people she cares about, and she finds it very difficult to master any sort of magic. With the aid of a strict but insightful teacher named Miss Ochiba, Eff begins to learn Aphrikan magic, a different way of using magical energy than those employed by Eff’s Avrupan ancestors. Meanwhile, more and more settlers come out West, and some begin founding settlements outside the Great Barrier Spell–even though they risk falling prey to sabrecats and medusa lizards and magic-devouring beetles.
Wrede builds a fascinating world in the Frontier Magic books, but the stories within each book don’t quite live up to the promising premise. Each of the three books spends a great deal of time telling us about the Far West, about magic in this world, and about the history of the Columbian continent. But the major crisis of each novel doesn’t emerge until about three-quarters of the way through. As a result, the stakes feel shallow, even when the crisis ostensibly has major implications for the future of human settlements out West. Furthermore, Eff never develops a terribly distinctive personality. She is sympathetic — who wouldn’t feel bad for a little girl constantly scolded for being bad luck? — but not all that engaging. She is nice and smart and that’s about all. Finally, Wrede has clearly thought through the details of how magic works in this world, but the lengthy discussions of different magical theories sometimes grow tedious.
If you’re looking for a fast read set in an interesting world, the Frontier Magic series may be worth picking up. However, it’s not a must-read for me the way other Wrede books have been. Part of me hopes that Wrede will return to the Frontier Magic world — but tell more exciting stories in it the second time around.
Rating: Library Loan