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Literature / The Secret Country

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The Secret Country is the setting of a series of fantasy novels by Pamela Dean.

It was introduced in the Secret Country trilogy — The Secret Country, The Hidden Land, and The Whim of the Dragon — about a group of five cousins who find themselves in a world they thought they had invented for their games.

The Dubious Hills is set in the same world, but takes place in a different area and involves different characters.

A forthcoming novel, with the working title Abiding Reflection, is to be a joint sequel to the four previous books. In 2013, Dean referred to it as her "still-in-limbo amazing and expanding shrinking novel variously known as Going North, Abiding Reflection, and My Poor Book. It was rejected by Viking Press in 2013 due to its length.

I need to finish revising Going North before we publish it. It got into repeated trouble with the publisher that bought it on spec, because it was just too long. Then, when I cut it down, my editor rightly thought that Iíd gone too far and made it difficult to comprehend. Also, sadly, the opening, which I am much attached to, does not work for people who havenít read the earlier books. Thatís the major issue right now; the rest is just adding back in some of the scenes that I cut. - Pamela Dean in a February 2016 interview.

These novels contain examples of:

  • All Girls Like Ponies: Averted in the trilogy. Of the three female main characters, Ruth and Ellen are competent riders, but not terribly interested in horses, while Laura hates horses with a passion and tends to fall off of them as soon as she's put in the saddle. This is inconvenient for her, since the person she pretends to be for two books plays this trope straight.
  • As the Good Book Says...: People in the Secret Country have many literary and Biblical quotations familiar from the everyday world, but written by different people. At one point, Ted says "I am made all things to all men, that I might by all means save some". He knows it as a verse from the Letters of Paul. But he says it because he is listening to the spirit of the dead Prince Edward; Edward is quoting from the writings of the great wizard Shan.
  • The Atoner: Prospero (no, not that one), Melanie's elder brother, who helped her kill a unicorn and became immortal using its blood; he later foreswore the teachings of their school of sorcery and is currently one of the scholars of Heathwill Library.
  • Arranged Marriage: Lady Ruth of the Green Caves and Lord Randolph. In the kids' game, it was arranged when she was a young child although in the real Hidden Land, it seems likelier that it was arranged later to strengthen ties between their opposing schools of magic. Later on, Lord Andrew complicates the peace negotiations between the Hidden Land and the Dragon King by offering Ted and Ruth to be married to the Dragon King's son and daughter.
  • Ban on Magic: Of the "ban on a specific school of magic" variety. A few hundred years ago, three of the four major schools of magic—Green Caves, Blue, and Yellow—drove the fourth, the Red, out of the inland countries where the books take place. What exactly the Red Sorcerers did to make themselves so unpopular is never really explained, only that they are still considered rather unsavory and that the forces they wield are both more powerful and more dangerous than those available to the other schools.
  • Be Careful What You Wish For: The Carroll children learn this in The Secret Country trilogy.
  • Bewitched Amphibians: A character uses "Shan can turn you into a toad!" as an expression of annoyance, referring to a legendary wizard named Shan.
  • Big Bad: Claudia/Melanie in The Secret Country trilogy.
  • Child Mage: In The Dubious Hills, all children younger than ten have magical abilties, which (except for the few who will go on to become wizards) wear off as they grow older.
  • Eskimos Aren't Real: Lord Andrew, living in a world imbued with many different kinds of sorcery, does not believe in magic, thinking it's all trickery and illusion.
  • Fantasy Gun Control: Guns aren't specifically mentioned, but high tech items brought from the earth dimension tend to turn into their medieval equivalents in the Secret Country, e.g. a flashlight becomes a lantern, and a digital watch becomes its 15th century equivalent. Something similar would presumably befall a gun.
  • Fertile Feet: Unicorns do this, although they are creatures of capricious morality. One of the children calls the trail of blossoms "unicorn footprints" and her sarcastic brother immediately redubs them "fewmets".
  • Fourth Wall Shut-In Story: A group of young cousins create a fantasy world together and end up stuck there for real.
  • Ghost Memory: Introduced subtly at first, this becomes a major plot point in the trilogy.
  • Heterosexual Life-Partners: Lord Randolph and Fence the wizard are devoted friends.
  • I Choose to Stay: The children make various decisions at the end of the trilogy. This is a world that they fervently love, but not all of them want to stay there forever. Any who make the decision will have to stay forever. Three do stay, and two bring their parents with them.
  • Immortality Immorality: Humans can become immortal using the blood of a unicorn killed in treachery. Since the unicorns, although annoying, are sentient beings, most of the characters are horrified by this. The wizard Shan, one of the founders of the Secret Country and a major contributor to its culture, also apparently disapproved of immortality on principle.
  • I Wish It Were Real: Five children have spent their lives playing a sustained imaginary game inside a detailed paracosm of their own making — only to find out it's not of their own making. The reality is often very beautiful, but because it's a real place, it's filled with complications and tragedies they never dreamed of.
  • Lampshaded Double Entendre: In The Secret Country, when Fence, Randolph, Patrick, Ellen, and Laura are discussing Lady Claudia, whom Randolph had been looking chummy with earlier:
    Fence: What did she [Claudia] want with thee?
    Randolph: [looks amused]
    Fence: Apart from the obvious.
  • Longing for Fictionland: The Carroll children in The Secret Country had a long, elaborate fantasy game about said country for years. They thought it was a fantasy of their own creation. It wasn't. Once they're involved with the actual place and its people, not only the real world but their old fantasy looks dull and wrong by comparison.
  • Magic Music: The Flute of Cedric.
  • Mary Sue: Laura is ordinary-looking, untidy, unable to carry a tune, and very clumsy. So, of course, in their games about the Secret Country, this trope is invoked; Princess Laura is beautiful and graceful, an excellent singer and dancer and very comfortable with horses and riding. When Laura gets in the Secret Country and has to pretend to be the Princess, she can't do those things, which almost gives the Carrolls away from the beginning. Ruth, on the other hand, is a gentle, courteous girl who discovers that her counterpart was conceited, nasty, even violent. The children who decide to stay at the end find that their peers in High Castle like them a lot better than the originals, although they just assume their manners have improved through maturity/experience.
  • Ooh, Me Accent's Slipping: In the first two Secret Country books, the Carrolls impersonate the royal children and everything depends on their maintaining this facade. People in the Secret Country speak Early Modern English, more or less, with formal and casual styles. The children do well with this when they remember to use it. But they frequently lapse into 20th-century American English. Nobody seems to notice. Same with the writing system; the Secret Country has several alphabets, but when Ted writes a letter using regular Roman letters, nobody thinks it's strange. Either they are all hearing what they want to hear, or given the reason the kids are there in the first place, maybe A Wizard Did It.
  • Our Werewolves Are Different: In The Dubious Hills, where the enchantment that turns people into werewolves cancels the one that gives the Dubious Hills' inhabitants their "knowledge".
  • Parental Abandonment: The royal children all have Missing Moms and distant fathers — which proves most convenient. As does the fact that their real world alter-egos' parents are all in Australia. They even bring this up; "there seems to be a shortage of mothers around here" or words to that effect.
  • Perfectly Arranged Marriage: A very odd example. There are no indications that Lady Ruth and Lord Randolph would have gotten on well at all... but when Ruth Carroll takes Lady Ruth's place, she finds herself falling in love with Lady Ruth's intended, who ultimately reciprocates.
  • Promotion to Parent: Arry in The Dubious Hills, after her parents mysteriously never returned from a business trip.
  • Really 700 Years Old: Prospero and Melanie in The Whim of the Dragon.
  • Send Me Back: At the end of The Hidden Land, the children write a letter of confession and attempt to return to the everyday world, hoping to prevent tragedy. Ted and Laura go through a brief and extremely painful So What Do We Do Now? before being shown that they not only can go back to the Hidden Land, they must go back.
  • Show Within a Show:
    • The Secret Country opens with a the kids performing the climactic scene of their original, "game" version of the story, as a private play.
    • In The Hidden Land, Ted participates in a ritual play, whose significance he does not know about until it's over.
  • So What Do We Do Now?: In the last chapter of The Hidden Land, Laurie actually says "What do we do now?" She and Ted have just returned from the Hidden Land, which they had imagined and played about for years as the Secret Country. Although readers are aware there's a third book, the bitter loss is described in painful detail. They even lampshade the "we learned something" business.
    It seemed that even imagination was no friend to them now. They could stumble from day to day, thinking they saw summons after summons back to the Hidden Land. But they had lost the Secret Country.
  • Speak Now or Forever Hold Your Peace: Used in a different context than usual in The Hidden Land, at a coronation rather than a wedding.
  • Star-Spangled Spandex: Fence, chief wizard of the Secret Country, wears star studded robes — as in astronomical stars, complete with galaxies and nebulae. It is not wise to look to closely at said robes as one is likely to get motion sickness.
  • Trapped in Another World: The premise of the trilogy.
  • Unexpectedly Real Magic: This is the premise of the trilogy, in which five young cousins who pretend to be characters in a fantasy world end up crawling through a bush and find themselves trapped in that fantasy world. It's ultimately subverted, though, with The Reveal that the idea of the Secret Country was magically planted in their heads by a magic-user from the Country, in order to get them to come to the Country; they never made it up at all.
  • Unicorn: The ones in the Secret Country are snarky and unhelpful, but can be bargained with.
  • White Magic: At one point in The Secret Country, Fence is described as a "white magician", meaning that he is good. The various styles of magic in that world are categorized by colors, so he is actually doing blue magic. Any of the magic types can be perverted to cause harm.
  • Who Wants to Live Forever?: Shan in the Secret Country Trilogy. He never wanted to become immortal; his lover Melanie made him so against his wishes, using unicorn's blood. He then spent the rest of his life trying to undo this. People in the Hidden Land now swear by Shan's mercy, meaning "that mercy which was granted to Shan" — death.
  • Wizarding School: Different branches/philosophies of magic are identified as Red, Green or Blue. Each has its School, with Ruth belonging to the Green School. We get tantalizing glimpses of the Green Caves in The Whim of the Dragon. Their magic is devoted to earth, water and plants.
  • Year Inside, Hour Outside: Subverted in The Secret Country. In fact, several chapters at the beginning are devoted to the kids painstakingly working out that time moves exactly the same outside the Secret Country as in it, and realizing that they are quickly going to get into serious trouble in both worlds if they don't find a way to account for themselves. They finally jerry-rig a solution, which has both good and bad consequences.
  • Ye Olde Butcherede Englishe: Natives of the Secret Country use a tolerable form of this, including "likes" for "pleases", "a" for "he or she" and "an" for "if". Interestingly, the author manages to vary it to less and more formal depending on the situation, and includes a described language that English-speaking visitors from modern Earth find maddening because they almost understand it; it might be a form of Old (not Middle) English. The one example occurs in The Hidden Land where they are able to pick out a few of the lines. They are from Chaucer's The Knight's Tale, which is Middle English.
    What is this world? What asketh men to have?
    Now with his love, now in his colde grave,
    Allone, withouten any compaignye.

Alternative Title(s): The Hidden Land, The Whim Of The Dragon, The Dubious Hills