The Secret Country

by Pamela Dean

Cover image

Series: Secret Country #1
Publisher: Firebird
Copyright: 1985
Printing: 2003
ISBN: 0-14-250153-0
Format: Mass market
Pages: 371

Buy at Powell's Books

The Secret Country is a young-adult novel about five children who have made up their own fantasy world. Every summer for as long as they can remember they've spent together, making up more of the world, acting out the dramatic bits, and playing various characters in that world. But this summer Ruth, Ellen, and Patrick have moved to Australia, and Ted and Laura are visiting the "wrong" cousins, stranded from their usual game and at loose ends. But this all changes when they stumble across a sword in a hedge near a strange deserted house. When they go through the hedge with the sword, they end up in their invented world.

Ted and Laura are shortly reunited with their cousins, who have found a similar sword in Australia, and the first part of this book shows the thrill of discovery as they figure out that this world is their imagined world and explore how it works, deciding whether and how much to be in character. They're in the middle of the story they invented, surrounded by the characters they made up, and everyone treats them as if they're the characters they'd written into the story as their primary roles. This is often a problem, since some of them have minor primary roles who don't fit their personalities very well, since they were usually playing other characters. There are other fun mismatches, such as the distances of the world feeling much larger when they're actually in it, as well as a lot of fun matches between their imagination and the world.

Having the main characters be responsible for inventing the world they end up in is a great twist on the classic portal quest fantasy. It provides a solid reason for the kids to be braver and more able in the world than they logically would be, but they also have to do a lot of fast dodging around their lack of physical skills. They don't get any special knowledge of the world other than their memory of their invention, or any special help fulfilling their roles (except possibly some enigmatic assistance when the story gets a bit mystical and strange). This is a particular problem for Laura, whose character was something of a wish-fulfillment fantasy that she has a hard time satisfying.

Against this backdrop is a classical, and fairly simple, fantasy story of a kingdom with court intrigues facing a possible growing magical threat from a nearby Great Evil. I was grateful for the simplicity, since piecing together the narrative is hard enough (the children all know it, so one gets a strong in medias res feeling). The Secret Country mostly focuses on the court intrigues and the acclimation of the children, as well as their difficulties and challenges in balacing their normal life and their life in the secret country. They can go back and forth, but (at least at first) time flows the same in both worlds, so they quickly get into trouble for going missing for long periods in both worlds. But their main problem is that the direction their story is going is not a direction they're sure they want it to go while they're in the middle of the world, and they're not sure if they can change it.

The children all know the story and world background backwards and forwards, and tend to talk about it backwards and forwards without explaining it to the reader. Sometimes this is fun as a puzzle, and sometimes it's just confusing. When events of the story get a bit more dreamlike and visionary towards the end of the book, I had a frustratingly hard time following what was going on and what its significance was. The central plot was there as an anchor, but there are a lot of characters and a lot of mythological bits (very realistic for a long-elaborated invented magical world that's a cooperative project between five kids) and it can be hard to keep track. It doesn't help that one of the characters becomes a bit of a jerk, and poor Laura's nasty mismatch between her character and herself produces wince-worthy struggles throughout the story.

The biggest flaw in this book is one that a reader can address in advance, but which I think was a very questionable publishing decision. It has absolutely no ending. One finishes the last chapter, turns the page, and there are no more chapters, with no sense of closure or completion. If you have the second book on hand to start reading immediately (and you want to read the second book immediately), this might not be too bad. But The Secret Country is truly not a complete book, even to the extent that series books are normally expected to be. It stops dead in the middle of the action.

I wanted to like this book a bit more than I did, and I'm going to keep reading the series because I think it will grow on me. Hopefully Laura will come into her own, which will help my enjoyment of it a lot. It's just a bit too confusing and a bit too depressing for some of the characters for me to fully recommend it yet, but it shows considerable potential. The basic idea is great.

Followed by The Hidden Land, which you want to have on hand before you start reading.

Rating: 6 out of 10

Reviewed: 2010-04-29

Last modified and spun 2014-12-21