Details: (c) Pamela Dyer-Bennet 1985; Pub Ace Fantasy Books 1985; ISBN 0-441-75739-1
Verdict: The Secret Country would be a great story if it were complete.
Reasons for reading it: Various things have been pointing towards reading Pamela Dean for a while, but the main reason is that:
How it came into my hands: rysmiel most charmingly gave it to me as an unbirthday present!
The Secret Country is one of those lovely E Nesbit type books where a bunch of kids have magical adventures, and a very nicely executed example of the genre. I love stories like that, where real people end up in completely fantastic situations.
The children are well-drawn (though I felt Ellen was under-characterized a little), although sometimes they feel a bit like story-book children rather than real children. That's not necessarily a terrible thing, mind you. I was quite intrigued by Laura's view of life as the youngest; she gets a lot more viewpoint stuff than youngest children usually do in these sort of books, and made me think hard about what it's like to be the one who tags along with a crowd of older children and has a hard time keeping up. (I am the oldest child myself, so I don't really have an idea what it's like to be Laura, but she sounded quite plausible to me, genuinely young without being soppy.)
The set-up of the magical land and its relationship with normal reality are both convincing and intriguing. I was pleased that not all the background is thrown in as infodumps, but the reader has little more information than the viewpoint characters. One thing that did niggle a little was the way that people's expressions conveyed far more information than is really plausible; that technique of incluing got irritating quite quickly. There's also some nice undermining of the expectations of the genre (as well as a few fairly obvious things about life in Mediaeval tech being less glamourous than one imagines), and I do like the quirk of the country being based on something the children made up, so that they expect to know what's going to happen. The children are very clearly aware that they are in a story, and don't have to be implausibly blind to the obvious to keep the story going.
The story is most delightfully adventurous; the children obviously have the possibility of screwing up in ways that have real consequences. A successful outcome seems neither too obvious nor too impossible, which is most pleasing. I was really drawn into the story, very much sympathizing with the characters and very much wanting to keep reading.
Since it succeeds so well on that level, I was even more disappointed than I normally would be when it ends in mid-air. I'm not mad on series anyway, but series that make no pretence at all of working as stand-alone stories really, really irritate me. I liked the book enough that I would have been prepared to go out and buy the sequel to keep reading, but I'm very put off by the way that it ends with absolutely nothing resolved. I feel I'm being effectively blackmailed to buy the rest of the series, and I really object to that. Plus, the lack of ending is extremely unsatisfying!