by Patricia C. Wrede
I have to report that I did re-read Thirteenth Child in preparation for this one. I don't think I would have had to; there was recap enough to make it fine to read Across the Great Barrier without reading Thirteenth Child first, but it was a pleasant way to spend a couple of days. And I think Across the Great Barrier is a much better book for having known Eff, Lan, Wash, and some of the other characters ahead of time. I'm not sure that Across the Great Barrier is as good as Thirteenth Child, either, although I am wondering why I think that. I think it does feel slightly less focused in its plot, though that's not necessarily a terrible thing, just different. It may also be that Thirteenth introduces such a novel new world, a world I was so enchanted with and excited to discover, that it has a slight shine over its sequel. The absolute strength of these two books is the world, particularly both the systems of magic and the natural history.
In this installment of Eff's story, she is trying very hard to find her place in the world. She knows what she doesn't want to do: go out East for more schooling, like her brother Lan. But she doesn't quite know what to do with herself beyond that. Frankly, I think most people who have been 18 and faced with Big Life Choices (that one feels, at the time, are going to either make or break the rest of one's life) can understand Eff's frustration and discontent -- there are options, she just doesn't want any of them, but she recognizes she has to make a choice at some point and soon. However -- an option does present itself that gets her excited, and that is to assist the new natural sciences professor at the college with a survey of the plants and animals in the dangerous lands west of the Great Barrier. While on the survey, Eff, Wash and Professor Torgeson (another excellent, strong, interesting female character from Wrede) discover many things, some unique, some tied in to the grubs that created the crisis in Thirteenth Child, and some more sinister that point to trouble ahead in what I hope will be a third book in this series.
Eff remains an excellent character, an honest mix of competence and anxiety, still working through some of the pain and nervousness associated with being a thirteenth child while recognizing logically that it doesn't matter. She still has a deep and important relationship with her twin Lan, and a warm and loving relationship, though complex, with the rest of her family too. We see much less of their friend William in this book, which I understand but feel is a lack -- he was one of my favourite characters from the last book, and I think there are some avenues to be investigated there, including his very rocky relationship with his father.
That said, I've never expected deep, serious, cathartic investigation of Emotional Issues from Wrede; not that she glosses over things, but they're not the focus of her tales, so much as the world and the plot. She writes a good character, but they're not terribly introspective. I think Eff might actually be the most introspective Wrede character I've ever encountered.
A worthy followup to Thirteenth Child, with more fantastic world-building and characters I enjoy spending time with. I would recommend reading the other first, as I think this book builds on that one. This series is fun and interesting, and though I did buy an electronic copy I'll be buying the paperback when it comes out -- just for a little more permanence.
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