The Frontier Magic trilogy by Patricia C. Wrede presents a puzzling dilemma for me as a reviewer:
On the one hand, I never doubted that I wanted to finish reading the trilogy — and even more importantly, my son remained engaged throughout, which is no small accomplishment.
On the other hand, these books contain certain problematic pieces that remain consistent across all three books.
Is it contradictory to say that I wouldn’t rate this series any higher than three stars, and at the same time state that I mostly enjoyed it all?
In Frontier Magic, we view an alternate America (known here as Columbia) through the eyes of Eff. Eff is one of twins, and is the family’s thirteenth child, in a society which believes that the 13th child will be full of bad magic. Because, yes, in the world of Frontier Magic, magic is part of the every day fabric of life. Magic is an advanced scientific field of study in the academic world, and even mundane tasks are routinely done by means of magic. In this tale of westward exploration and discovery, the civilized world stops at the Mammoth River (think Mississippi), and all land east of the river is protected by the Great Barrier Spell, which keeps out dangerous creatures like steam dragons and medusa lizards. Yet exploration of the West beckons, and expeditions regularly set out across the river, some never to return.
I wrote quite a bit about my reaction to the first book in the series, Thirteenth Child, in my review here. And the same issues that I had with the first book continue into the second. As I wrote on Goodreads about Across the Great Barrier:
| Book #2 in the Frontier Magic series continues — for good and for not-so-good — along the same path as the first book, Thirteenth Child.
On the plus side, we continue to explore this alternate history of the United States, in which magic is commonplace and an actual necessity. The challenges and adventure of living life on the frontier are still here, and main character Eff is still pursuing her own non-standard magical skills.
On the negative side, the same problems that detract from the overall success of the first book are still present. The magical systems are overly complicated, so that it’s never quite clear what’s happening, and the solutions and big confrontations are so full of this jargon-heavy magical hoo-ha that it’s hard to tell who did what or why. Eff should be a powerful character, but she never really comes into her own. That is, she clearly has talents that are rare, but she doesn’t get to do a whole lot with them. She’s always just a part of, not the lead actor — she assists a professor, she participates in expeditions, she’s on the team when danger strikes — but she never is out in front, making decisions and standing out. Finally, the plot suffers from odd pacing. Many of the chapters (as in the first book) have time jumps that basically say, well, for the rest of that year, not much happened, or for the next few months, I kept doing my job. There’s a lot of summarizing, with action sequences popping up occasionally, but overall there’s a static feeling, as if the whole plot was being described in synopsis rather than actually taking place.
The Frontier Magic series thus far strikes me as a very interesting idea without the execution to fully back it up.
As for book #3, my feelings are pretty much the same. There’s further adventure, and Eff, now in her early 20s, finally comes into own in terms of flexing her magical powers and being recognized as having unique talents. She’s invited to participate in the most far-reaching expedition yet, and the group’s travels are full of danger and excitement. And yet, the same issues that plague the earlier books show up here as well. Nothing ever feels terribly urgent, despite the fact that a lot does actually happen. Events are described in a way that feels very episodic, and the point-of-view has a distant to feel to it. Eff narrates all that happens, and her voice simply isn’t particularly distinct. We never do really get a full picture of what Eff is capable of, although we do see her pretty much save the day.
The most serious problem, for me, is that the magical systems are fairly incomprehensible. We get long passages describing how Eff uses her magic to save the expedition (and perhaps civilization as a whole) — but it’s practically impossible to envision what she and the others are actually doing or how any of their magic truly works.
There’s quite a bit of outrage expressed in the reviews on Goodreads and elsewhere over the absence of a native population in the world of Frontier Magic. Others have gone into great detail on this issue; I don’t need to repeat them. Suffice it to say that the books are controversial because of this omission, and if you want to know more, there’s quite a lot written elsewhere on the topic.
Approaching these books, then, purely as an adventure tale and leaving aside the social commentary, I find myself back where I started. Unmitigated success? No. But enjoyable and engaging? Yes.
Even when my own attention wandered from time to time, my son remained interested throughout. Neither of us was exactly on the edge of our seats… but we still wanted to see it through and find out more. So all in all, not a bad choice for advanced middle grade readers or for adults who enjoy middle grade fiction featuring magical world-building.