“Everyone talks like Shakespeare”: Pamela Dean’s Secret Country trilogy

This is one of my absolute favourite things to read. I’ve been trying to hold off on re-reading until the sequel comes out, but I couldn’t make it any longer, I was overwhelmed with longing for them and picked them up. The Secret Country and  The Hidden Land are one book in two volumes. The Whim of the Dragon is the conclusion, but it is slightly more separate—there is a natural break there. I recommend getting hold of all three and reading them together, as if they were all bound together. At that, they’d be shorter than many fat fantasy single volumes.

You know how children in children’s books find their way into a magic kingdom? You know how you read stories like that when you were a kid and loved them? Then when you re-read them as an adult they’re much shorter than you remembered and all the colour has drained out of them? The Secret Country books are that kind of book but written for adults, jewel bright, with all the depth and resonance and layering that anyone could want. There are five American children who have made up an elaborate game about a secret and magical country, largely based on their reading of Shakespeare. Then they find themselves there, and it both is and isn’t the way they expect, they have to negotiate the shoals of the story they made up, because once they’re there they really don’t want it to happen any more.

My posts here are always about the books I feel like reading, I don’t have an agenda, but I do read them differently knowing I’m going to write about them. I observe my reactions to share with you.  As I started reading The Secret Country the bit of me that observes my reactions felt very aware of just how much I was enjoying it. There are books I sink into so much that there’s really no me left, no awareness of separate consciousness. And there are books where I have a kind of doubled consciousness, inside and outside, observing, paying attention. Reading this, I kept thinking “Gosh, I love this!” Then I’d read another couple of lines and think “Gosh, I really do love this so much!” I was so delighted to be re-reading it that I almost couldn’t concentrate on actually reading it.

I’ve re-read these books countless times, which is unusual for something I didn’t read at all until the late nineties. These books have got into my heart in a way that was quite normal when I was a child but which has become increasingly less so since I’ve grown up. I do sometimes still want to hug a book, but I’m not so open to them getting in so deep. There’s something about these that really encourages that. I’ve also written quite a lot about them, and the details of the world, a long time ago on rec.arts.sf.written. I don’t want to repeat that here, not that it’s really possible. (It’s still findable via Google Groupe if you want a very long, very detailed discussion with spoilers.) So, they’re books I’ve read a lot and thought about a lot and talked about a lot.

What makes them outstanding isn’t the world, though it’s very good. The world is something that’s been made up and which is getting more baroque in the corners where they haven’t been paying attention. They started with all sorts of “because that’s what imaginary medieval kingdoms are like” and then it got more convoluted and interesting from there. It isn’t the language, though the language is wonderful, both the use of “high” language and the way that combines with the way kids talk naturally when they’re excited. There’s a lot of Shakespeare in both language and world, and that’s just lovely. But 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.

The actual revelatory end is a little disappointing, and there are some questions left unanswerable. It doesn’t matter, because the rest of it is so good and the expository end is so very satisfying.

If you like books and have always secretly wished you might step into one and have an adventure, do try these.


Jo Walton is a science fiction and fantasy writer. She’s published eight novels, most recently Half a Crown and Lifelode, and two poetry collections. 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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