Book Review: “The Secret Country” by Pamela Dean

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The Secret Country
by Pamela Dean

By page 10, I realized that I loved the characters in this book. By page 65, I thought it might be one of my favorite books ever. And though, further on, I felt it might have moved at a brisker pace and involved less quarrelsome chatter between its five young heroes, I never lost the sense that I had stumbled upon a truly fabulous story. This is a book young book lovers will love, a fantasy about a fantasy that comes to life, a mystery about a murder that hasn’t happened yet – we already know who does it, but hope that he doesn’t. It is a book that, according to its author, has the ambitious mission of reminding grown-ups of the pleasure they took from the books they loved best as children, while leading young readers to still more exciting discoveries.

Can one book do all that? Not likely. It takes a trilogy at least! So it’s nice to know that The Secret Country is also the title of the trilogy that begins with this book. What’s nice about that becomes increasingly clear as this book nears its end, with lots of mysteries yet to be cleared up, dangers to be faced, and magical tasks to be completed before the children can go home.

Who are these children? They are cousins who have spent every summer, until now, playing make-believe together on a Pennsylvania farm. This summer, though, Ruth, Patrick, and Ellen have moved to Australia. Meanwhile Ted and Laura are stuck in Illinois, visiting another set of cousins with whom they do not agree.

Nothing suits them quite like the Secret they used to share, the game in which they invented a whole medieval world stocked with pageantry, courtly language, palace intrigue, magic, assassination, and war. How convenient it is when each group of siblings finds a magic sword that brings them to the very same, and very real, Secret Country!

Or perhaps it isn’t so convenient. Now that the kids find themselves forced into the roles they created for themselves, surrounded by not-so-imaginary folks they really care about, it isn’t so easy to follow through on the script they wrote. Princess Laura is supposed to be an excellent rider and dancer, but the real Laura is afraid of horses and falls down a lot. Lady Ruth is supposed to be a journeyman sorcerer, but the real Ruth knows no more magic than you or I. Prince Edward isn’t supposed to know what happens in advance, but Ted knows too well – and he doesn’t want it to happen.

Even while the children bicker about whether or not the world they find themselves in is real, events are marching toward foreseen and unforeseen dangers. Nobody seems to notice that the kids really aren’t who they’re supposed to be, but keeping up the charade is exhausting. Is it all real? Does magic exist or not? Can they change what’s going to happen? And why are things happening that they didn’t plan on? These mysteries are enough to keep five ordinary kids tied in knots. Throw in a couple of scheming villains, the brewing threat of another war with the fabled Dragon King of the south, the discovery of rings of power and other magical items, an unforgettable encounter with unicorns, and other surprises, and you have an adventure with as many thrilling facets as you can desire.

Wrap yourself in this book, and it will close around you and make the outside world disappear. Better could not be said of any young-adult fantasy novel – except, perhaps, that there is more to come. The trilogy continues with The Hidden Land and The Whim of the Dragon. After reading this first book, I have upgraded my plans to read the others to “Top Priority.” Other titles by this Minneapolis-based author include Tam LinJuniper, Gentian, and Rosemary; and The Dubious Hills, which seems somehow related to this trilogy. You can find out more about Pamela Dean, a.k.a. Pamela Dyer-Bennet, at her website.