Recommended for ages 8-12
In a fantasy kingdom where all the subjects are deliriously happy, two girls bond over their mutual feelings of sorrow, helplessness, and ultimately, determination. Princess Jeniah is a 12 year-old Queen Ascendant; her mother is dying and she’s got very little time left to learn to be a queen, let alone to process the grief she’s feeling. Her mother’s cryptic message about the mysterious bog, Dreadwillow Carse, fires up her curiosity: “If you enter the Carse, the monarchy will fall.”
At the same time, a village girl, Aon, loses her father when the Crimson Hoods come and take him away, ostensibly to become the next advisor to the monarchy. The villagers barely recognize that he’s gone, and Aon – who’s already lost her mother to the Carse – is bereft. Aon is not like the other villagers. She feels a sadness she can’t explain. All the time.
When the two girls encounter one another, Jeniah asks Aon for a favor: explore the Carse. The monarchy can ask someone else to enter the Carse, after all, can’t they? In return, Aon asks Jeniah to send her father home. This meeting sets each girl off on her own personal voyage of discovery, where they’ll uncover long-kept secrets of the Carse, the monarchy, and most importantly, about themselves.
On the face of it, this is an interesting middle grade fantasy tale, with multicultural characters and a Big Secret to be uncovered. Read a little deeper, and you discover that this is an interesting portrayal of pre-adolesence set in a high fantasy setting. A villager and a monarch bond over their mutual sadness, that they feel they can never show to others. The people around them are either keeping secrets from them, as with Jeniah, or are wandering through life in a false delirium, refusing to see what’s going on around them, as with Aon. Aon feels a sadness no other villager can grasp, and she feels frustrated and ignored. The Carse’s presence holds so many answers, but they’re discouraged from venturing in. They have to work together to find answers, and those answers will reveal terrible truths about those around them.
Tweens will identify with the girls and their feelings of frustration; many will understand the undercurrent of seemingly inexplicable sadness and the pressure to put on a smiling face. They’ll share Jeniah’s frustration with her tutor, who answers all of her questions with questions – she has to learn not only to question everything, but to weigh the answers in front of her before she acts. The character development is built steadily through the book, with small plot reveals throughout leading readers further and further, until they reach the conclusion that hits hard and leaves a lot of questions in its wake. This is a great book to hold a discussion group with. I’ll be booktalking it for sure.
A good addition to middle grade collections and fantasy fans’ TBRs. Author insights and an excerpt are available on the Algonquin website. The Secret of Dreadwillow Carse has received a starred review from School Library Journal.