Patricia C. Wrede’s “The Far West:” Appealing Alternate History

Patricia C. Wrede’s THE FAR WEST (the third book in the “Frontier Magic” series) is about twenty-year-old Francine “Eff” Rothmer, who is both the thirteenth child of her family and a promising young mage.  Eff lives in an altered version of the United States called Columbia, and has worked with magical creatures and various professors during most of her short life due to her own unusual magical gifts.

One thing to keep in mind: Eff has often been called an “unlucky” child because she’s the thirteenth of fourteen children (she’s the twin sister of Lan, who is the seventh son of a seventh son, thus marked out for extremely high potential and power early).  But she found out in two previous books (THIRTEENTH CHILD and ACROSS THE GREAT BARRIER) that one tradition’s unlucky child makes for a different tradition’s extremely lucky child, to the point that she’s learned more about Aphrikan magic (called “worldsensing”) than the usual form of magic used in Columbia, Avrupan; Eff even knows a bit about Hijero-Cathayan magic, mostly because her brother Lan is interested in it.

Anyway, because Eff knows so much about the various magical traditions that are available to her, she’s become a magician to watch.  Yet for whatever reason, she’s so humble that she takes her talents for granted.  While she has learned to rely upon her abilities, she also tends to put herself down — perhaps due to being thought unlucky by many of the other frontier settlers due to her birth order for so many years.

Eff’s position as an independent-minded career woman in a frontier settlement isn’t easy to handle.  She has all sorts of gifts, but she’s mostly immersed herself in learning about magical creatures in her home in Mill City (probably somewhere in western Missouri, or possibly Kansas).  Her father is a professor, her mother concentrated on child-rearing, and most of Eff’s sisters have quietly married rather than go after careers of their own.

Because of this — and because of the fact that Eff still lives at home with her parents, as respectable young women of the mid-1800s tended to do before marriage — Eff gets teased a lot as to when she’s going to settle down by her sisters.  (Her brothers seem to realize that Eff should be left alone, but for whatever reason they don’t try to shut down their sisters in any way.)  This lends humanity to Eff’s situation; yes, she’s a magician, and yes, she has all sorts of talents, but like most youngsters in any era, she feels like a misfit.

Anyway, Eff is so self-effacing that despite her previous adventures (from the two earlier books in this series), she doesn’t seem to think she’d make much of a candidate for the latest explorer’s expedition, even though several reputable career women are going along — one of the professors Eff works for, a member of the Army, and several other reputable scientists — which means that Eff would not be the only career woman on the trip.  In addition, Eff would know many other expeditionary members, as her brother Lan, her erstwhile suitor Roger Boden, and her best friend of many years’ standing, William Graham, are all going.

And of course Eff wants to go on the expedition, but for whatever reason, she just doesn’t open her mouth.

Well, Eff eventually does get invited (by the professor she’s been working for), and it turns out Eff is needed on the trip . . . or at least her unusual way of looking at magic is.  Because the spell that allows for any expansion of Columbia — the spell that Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson themselves put into place eighty-three years ago — is now starting to break down.  The only ones who can possibly do anything about it are Eff and other the members of the expedition.

So, will Eff and the others succeed in repairing the spell?  What will happen to the magical creatures they’ve been studying if they do?  And will Eff figure out once and for all whether or not she and Roger will suit, or whether or not she and William would make a better match?

All of these questions will be answered, yet the way they’re answered leaves more room for additional books.  Which is as it should be, because a world that’s this rich in complexity needs more than three books for an adequate exploration.

Overall, I liked Ms. Wrede’s version of the American frontier.  The detailing of how expeditions work and of the varying forms of magic complement Eff’s coming of age story nicely.  And the world-building is astonishingly complete; Ms. Wrede’s Columbia feels like a place just around the corner that’s always been there, but for whatever reason, no one really noticed what it was doing before.

However, there was one thing that bothered me throughout THE FAR WEST, and that was Eff’s extreme self-effacement.  Eff is such a good character, and it does make sense that after being told she was unlucky for years that she’d have inculcated much of that (which is why she is the way she is).  But to not put herself forward for the expedition was annoying; for fifty or sixty pages of THE FAR WEST, I kept saying, “C’mon Eff, why are you doing this?”

Because self-effacement doesn’t mean you have no idea what your gifts are.  And self-effacement also doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t try to go on an expedition where your gifts are clearly needed, either.

In a young adult tale like this one, I think it would’ve been a bit stronger for Eff to put herself forward rather than Ms. Wrede using the expedient of the female professor Eff works for saying (best paraphrase), “You must go along, or else.”  It would’ve added to Eff’s coming of age to be able to admit to herself (even if to no one else) that she really does have worth and value to the point that she says, “Yes, I want to go on this expedition.  I have just as much right to be there as my brother Lan and really, I don’t understand why I haven’t been invited in the first place.”

Because Eff does not do this, and because it’s so obvious that she should — and because no one in the book questions her self-effacement, either — I can’t give this book quite as high of a mark as I would’ve liked.

Still, this is an enjoyable book with a great setting and some wonderful characters.  It’s fun to read, fast-paced (except for the fifty or sixty pages Eff dithers about the expedition), and I’d definitely read more books set in this world or with these characters.

Grade: A-minus.

— reviewed by Barb

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