Eff is the thirteenth child in a family of fourteen children, and her twin brother, Lan, is the seventh son of a seventh son. Her family moved to Mill City to escape their own relatives, who were busy building Lan up because of his magical status of a seventh son of a seventh son, but at the same time tearing Eff down because she was an unlucky (and malevolent) thirteenth child. In reality, Eff was not malevolent at all, but her relatives treating her as if she were might have made such a thing actually happen.
Life in Mill City gave Eff a lot more confidence in herself, and she learned Aphrikan magic from her teacher at the local school, because her Avrupan magic was going badly wrong for her. But when a magical plague of bugs started attacking the outside settlements across the Great Barrier, Lan and Eff ended up being the ones to overcome that problem with their magic, and it turned out that Eff was the heroine of the hour. This made her a three days wonder, and while she found it refreshing at first to be a hero and not derided for being a thirteenth child, she has gotten tired of it completely. But as her secondary schooling nears its end, her brother, already going to attend an Eastern Magical College, pushes her to go with him and learn to do more of her own magic.
But that isn't what Eff wants to do, and his pushing does have the effect of making her actually think about what she wants to do with her life after her schooling is over. And after thinking it over for a good long while, she decides that she wants to go exploring beyond the Great Barrier, to see what sort of plants and animals live there, as very little is known about them. In the meantime, she wants to continue working at the Menagerie, where animals from the west are kept for study. Her mother objects to Eff wanting to put herself in danger, but at the same time, her parents have supported all their children in what they want to do as adults, meaning that while her mother isn't happy about it, neither does she cut Eff off after learning her daughter's plans.
Sooner than she might have thought possible, Eff learns that, because of the problem of the Bugs and Grubs that caused so many problems for the settlements, the Council which runs the settlements has agreed to send a scientific expedition out beyond the barrier to survey the land and see what has changed after the bugs wreaked their destruction. However, the amount of money given for the expedition means that it will just be one professor, a Scandian woman named Professor Torgeson who worked with Eff at the Menagerie, and Eff herself, along with Wash, the Aphrikan Circuit-Riding magician responsible for the area which they will be studying.
But as they leave the Barrier and some of the oldest outposts behind, they discover that the Rationalists are having a very... unrational response to the crisis with the Bugs that Lan and Eff dealt with. Some of the Rationalists, those who don't want to use magic, think that they should use even less magic in response, and Eff's sister Rennie is angry that even the little magics she once used to help her family aren't being allowed in the settlement any more. But it gets worse. Some of the Rationalists think that they should round up whatever bugs and grubs remain and use them as a weapon against the magic-using settlements around them. Because if the Rationalists use no magic at all, they would be safe from the grubs and mirror bugs.
But Professor Torgeson points out that there are plenty of other animals out there that the rationalists aren't safe from, and that using the bugs in that would could possibly kill the people whose magic is used to sustain the barriers. Rennie's husband is already concerned, caught between his wife's opinions, wanting to keep his children safe, and the outright hatred that his fellow rationalists regard anyone who uses magic with. It has even begun to imperil his family, and it's not safe for Eff, Wash and Professor Torgeson to stay with Rennie and her family in the settlement. Eff is concerned for Rennie and her relatives and writes to her mother to tell her to invite Rennie and the others to come to stay with them, which may make it easier for her to stay safe.
Not just that problem is brewing on the plains, but the loss of the ground cover have hit the prey species hard, and now packs of Sabercats and Columbian Sphynxes have come out of the West in search of food and are imperiling the settlers and settlements where they have never or very rarely seen before. Not only are animals affected, but the whole feel of the land is changed, with all the magic sucked out of the land by the bugs and grubs, it's taking longer for all the plants and animals to return to where they once had been. Eighteen settlements have failed since the attack by the mirrorbugs and grubs, forced out by lack of food, and some others are on very shaky ground.
But out in the furthest settlement of all, Promised Land, where escaped slaves were sent during the War, the three discover some strange rocks when they look into a stream that has suddenly gone dry. These rocks are white, but resemble bits and pieces of animals. And what's even stranger is that they aren't carved, but seem to be actual animals petrified and turned to stone. No animal known could do such a thing, but what caused the animals to be petrified, and if it was an unknown animal, what can be done about it?
Upon their return to civilization, Professor Torgeson sends out pieces of the rock to be examined by experts in biology and geology. But when a magical disaster engulfs her brother Lan, can Eff save him in time to be there when the mystery of the strange animal statues is finally investigated? And can she correct her own wandering magic in time to save herself when the new expedition goes horribly wrong?
I loved Patricia Wrede's "The Thirteenth Child", and this book is the sequel, which I had been long waiting for. Starting this book made all of my memories of Eff and her family come back in a great rush, and I was once again enmeshed in Eff's world of magic and problems in an alternate America. Here we get to see a lot more of the land that is on the other side of the protective barrier, where two of Eff's siblings have chosen to live their lives. And even though Eff once considered Mill City to be little better than the wilderness, now we get to see the true wilderness and how dangerous it can be.
I love how Eff slowly begins to resolve her problem with Avrupan magic. In the first book, it seemed that Aphrikan magic might be her saving, but here we learn it was merely another crutch to keep her from seeing the real source of her problems and dealing with it. Part of which is that, like her brother, Lan, Eff is very magically powerful, and she uses too much power in her spells. Instead of pouring it out with a pitcher, she needs to learn to portion it out with an eyedropper to use her spells correctly. And while she still may have problems with spells in the future, she has gone a long way towards learning to deal with her problems.
I loved returning to Eff's world and seeing what she will be dealing with in the future. Many problems were set up in this book, and I am sure they will be future story threads in forthcoming books. But I love Eff and the characters she interacts with, all of whom are their own people and rarely do anything as expected of them. We also get to see Hijero-Cathayan magic for the first time, and I'd like to see more of that as well. We may end up seeing it through Lan, although he's been burned on that score.
I found this book wonderful, giving us another chance to experience more of Eff and her world, and to once again meet the people that she interacted with in the last book. I love this series, and hope it goes on quite a bit longer, as I am not yet in the least tired of Eff and her world. Highly recommended.