Pamela Dean’s The Secret Country is the first book in her Secret Country Trilogy. Laura, Ted, and their three cousins Ellen, Ruth, and Patrick have been playing their make believe game, The Secret, every summer. The Secret takes place in a make-believe world and follows a scripted story the five kids have come up with involving wizards, unicorns, war, assassinations, and political intrigue. But this year, Ellen, Ruth and Patrick have moved to Australia. Ted and Laura’s parents have gone to visit but couldn’t afford plane tickets for their children to come, too; Ted and Laura are sent to stay with other cousins, who have nothing to do with The Secret. And so Ted and Laura are miserable. At least until they find a sword under a hedge. Hanging onto it transports them into a magical world where their three cousins are already waiting. They discover they’re at the beginning of the game and that all five of them are expected to play their parts. But how can they? Ted, playing crown prince Edward, is no sword-fighter. Laura, a klutz who is terrified of horses is supposed to be the graceful Princess Laura who loves them. And none of the cousins know the people who they should have known since birth in this strange land. How will they make it through The Secret without being discovered?
Honestly, that’s an excellent question. I’m not entirely sure how they made it through book one without much more than weird looks being thrown their way from time to time. But they did.
The Secret Country is a bit of a hard read. The beginning is a bit confusing at times. I had a harder time of it though once the story really got going; Laura is the main character, and she’s really boring. You can expect her to fall every time she moves, or to drop the things she’s holding. EVERY. SINGLE. TIME. And she has no courage at all, which translates into her just wanting to go home or hide whenever anything is happening. I do suspect this was on purpose, and that Laura will grow over the course of the trilogy. But much like in the beginning of Mockingjay, when Katniss is confused and not caring, it makes for really boring reading.
Another thing that I admit bothered me at first was how the solutions to things seemed to be something the children would think of with no real foreshadowing, like Shan’s Ring. When Shan’s Ring was first mentioned, it felt rather like a deus ex machina sort of thing. But the more I thought about it, Dean’s introduction to the ring seemed fitting because this is a world that children made up; why wouldn’t they be able to make up the solution as they go, too. So in the end I have to commend Dean; the world of The Secret Country really does feel like a children’s make believe game.
I am torn on whether or not I’d be interested in reading the other books in this trilogy though. All the way through I was thinking the answer to that question would be a resounding “no,” but right at the end I admit I got a bit more intrigued. It felt rather like the end was when the story really started (the rest of the book felt like backstory, which was rather unfortunate). But seeing how I read The Secret Country back in November and haven’t cared enough to get the second book, I guess it wasn’t intriguing enough for me.