Stories and Secrets: Pamela Dean’s The Secret Country

There’s a technique Cordwainer Smith used to use where he told you the story he was going to be telling and then he went on to tell you the story and it was all different even though it was also what he had said. This is one of the things that Pamela Dean’s Secret Country books do. It begins with children playing a game about the murder and betrayal of a king. It goes on with the children finding themselves in a magic country that is their magic country, and in a story that is the story they’ve been playing — so that they, and we, know what’s going to happen. But of course it doesn’t happen the way they expect, and we share their doubled vision and knowledge.

This is one of the best double identity stories ever.

The Secret Country and The Hidden Land are one book in two volumes. The Whim of the Dragon is a sequel. The Dubious Hills is another book set in a different part of the same world and with different characters, and the forthcoming (complete, and due to be published Spring 2013) novel is a sequel to all of these books. I have written about the three Secret Country books here before. I said:

What makes them truly great is the way they’re about the difference between reality and story, that tightrope of responsibility.

Laura is eleven and her brother Ted is fifteen, and it is through their eyes that we see the Secret Country for the first two volumes. They are quiet bookish kids and a lot of the fun is watching them walk the tightrope of knowing too much and not enough. They, their cousins Ruth, Ellen and the fiercely atheist Patrick, are masquerading as the Royal Children of the Secret Country. They are surrounded by parents and teachers and wizards and nurses, all of whom expect incomprehensible things of them. There’s a way in which Dean captures the state of being a child very well  with this—they’re surrounded by people who are bigger and more powerful and who have their own agendas and who won’t take the children seriously. It’s not all that different for Laura treading carefully in the High Castle from doing the same in her aunt’s house in Illinois. Yet it’s infinitely more interesting, and there’s a lot more at stake. The scale has changed.

It’s that tightrope of responsibility that’s wonderful. The children know and don’t know what’s going to happen. They don’t know if they can change it. People expect things of them and they bluff their way through. They believe they made up the story, and possibly the world and the people. They are afraid to tell anyone the truth — they are children, with a child’s eye view of fault and responsibility and the difference between fantasy and reality. (When they’re standing in a magic place trying to change something, Laura feels emboldened by saying “Let’s say…” which is what they said when they were playing.) The first two books are a wonder of things they know and don’t know. They are full of expectations and events, and the tangle between them. Sometimes they bring things about by trying to avert them. Sometimes things just work differently in the real fantasy world from the way they did in the game. And the unicorns are annoyingly whimsical, and their meat and drink is poetry.

In The Whim of the Dragon, the children outrun their plot, and also confess the truth of their identities, which makes it a rather different kind of book. It’s still satisfying, and by this time the desire to know what’s happening and how the world works is overwhelming. I never heard of anyone not rushing on to Whim as soon as they could, and certainly I never think of stopping at the end of The Hidden Land. But Whim is a book of expansion and explanations, while the first two are the story of being caught in a story.

I love these books and return to them frequently both because I keep finding new things in them and new ways of seeing them and because I love that the way the double identity and the fantasy world play with each other.


Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published two poetry collections and nine novels, most recently Among Others, and if you liked this post you will like it. She reads a lot, and blogs about it here regularly. She comes from Wales but lives in Montreal where the food and books are more varied.

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