Judging by the state of the web at the moment, it appears I'm going to be the first person to do a review of Jane Johnson's The Secret Country: The Eidolon Chronicles
First off, full revelation: I've never actually met Jane. However, I'm good friends with Katharine Kerr,
one of her authors, so I've been hearing about her off and on for years. When I went to CascadiaCon, this last fall's NASFIC, I grabbed the free swag from the Simon & Schuster
table, including an advance copy of Jane's new novel, but it wasn't until I packed it as extra reading material for a rainy visit to Truckee that I realized that Jane was the one Kit had been mentioning for years.
Anyway, here's the review/rant/whatever. First the glowing stuff, which I almost forgot because I go into a novel with the expectation of being entertained: The Secret Country
is a fun romp, especially when we encounter the particularly British archetypes of "the awful relatives," namely Awful Uncle Aleister and Cousin Cynthia. They are vastly entertaining, and Cousin Cynthia's pet cat, the hairless Sphynx, is almost worth the price of admission himself. The comic relief with the goblins is also great, and Johnson has a rare touch with writing dialogue for what would be called "the clowns of the wayang of the left" in Balinese shadow-puppet theatre. Less abstrusely, she writes really funny lines for her villains' bumbling henchlings. I look forward to seeing more of the goblins in later books.
Regardless, on to a bit more of the plot. The Secret Country
starts with a familiar premise: a boy named Ben Arnold (short for "Benjamin Arnold," not "Benedict Arnold," but still unfortunate for American readers) goes into a marvelous magical pet emporium which is actually in fact magical because he walks out with a talking cat. Same premise as Jennifer Murdley's Toad
, but with a small twist in that, while the cat is indeed from Eidolon, the magical Secret Country, it turns out that half the magic is already in Ben, who hasn't so much purchased a talking cat as suddenly come into his inheritance of being able to talk to animals, including pixies, selkies and dragons This is because his mother is actually from Eidolon as well, not that she ever mentioned it, and it's with Ben's mom that the problems with the book begin.
Isadora Arnold has encouraged her son to save up for the Mongolian Fighting Fish he so covets, because it's good for children to care for things, and this is all fine and dandy except that by the time he's saved up enough money, she's gone from merely feeling poorly to sighing like Camille, sitting in a wheelchair and having her husband carry her up the stairs. And while I do not expect that British children have all read "The Gift of the Magi,"
it's a pretty big ding against character sympathy that Ben goes into the shop hellbent on buying the stupid fish anyway, rather than get something for his poor sick and obviously dying mother. There is some small redemption in the fact that Ben instead spends the money to purchase the freedom of Iggy, the talking cat, who also mentions that Mr. Dodd, the pet store owner, is cruel and evil and means to kill him. But even without this philanthropic incentive, for heaven's sake, it's a talking cat. What kid would be willing to pass that up?
The plot goes on, with magical creatures being stolen out of Eidolon via the Wild Road near the old stone in Aldstane Park, and while the plot and character sympathy decidedly pick up after the initial chapters, the diction and naming conceits also start to grate.
Foremost among these is what I'll call Creeping Harry-Potterism, or Sorcerer's Stone Syndrome, where American children are considered too stupid to understand various words from British English and so they're translated into American English, despite the fact that the story is otherwise unapologetically British, where Ben's mom is his "Mum," but there's mention of soccer players (as opposed to football) and he has a "chips packet."
What the hell is a chips packet? A British child would have a crisps
packet, whereas an American child would have a bag of chips. Chips packet? A web search turned up one use of the term, on a website from Zaire. So a South African idiom for a British story intended for American kids?
However, I will not blame Jane Johnson for this. I will blame the copyeditor. I know the havoc those can wreak. I will likewise blame the copyeditor for the three instances of "was" in place of "were" in what should have been perfectly ordinary and proper uses of the subjunctive mood. (Dropping the subjunctive mood is a pet peeve of mine.) There's a note in the front of my copy which reads,
Please check publication information and any quotations against a bound copy of the book. We urge this for sake of editorial accuracy as well as for your legal protection and ours.
Hopefully some of these issues may be addressed before the "bound copy" appears.
Still, Johnson has a trouble with having her character names range from "Ignatius Sorvo Coromandel," aka "The Wanderer," aka Iggy, the talking cat, to "Lady Hawley-Fawley of Crawley," who sounds like she should be from a Wallace and Grommet movie. Admittedly, I was greatly amused by the name of the selkie, "She Who Swims the Silver Path of the Moon, Daughter of He Who Hangs Around on the Great South Rock to Attract Females," but that sort of farce undercuts the drama when The Horned One/Herne the Hunter/Cernunnos shows up later in the book.
Similarly, Ben is savvy enough to know that "Aldstane" is "Old Stone" in Old English, but doesn't mention that his house address, "Gray Havens, 27 Underhill Road" is a Tolkien reference, despite having a copy of The Hobbit
in the house. Then there's the name-dropping/product-placement of Gaiman's "The Sandman" in one chapter, while Ben's sister Ellie is listening to the (nonexistent, so far as I could find with a web search) band, The Blue Flamingos.
I can understand using fake band names if you don't want the book to get dated, or if you plan to have the band show up on stage in later books, but the juxtaposition with an actual real-world comic published in the late 80s? Wouldn't Ben at least be reading Coraline
? Plus naming your magical country "Eidolon," a word that may already be in the vocabulary of the type of twelve-year-old who's actually read The Hobbit
and "The Sandman"?
Of course, you shouldn't squint too hard at any fantasy where kids travel through a magic portal into a world where magical creatures speak the same language as the world they left, especially when you have eccentric gentlewomen buying dragons as ecologically sound garden incinerators, but the main trouble with The Secret Country
is the way it veers from the mythic atmosphere of The Weirdstone of Brisingamen
to the tongue-in-cheek farce of A Series of Unfortunate Events.
The artwork has the same problem, with the dog-headed Dodman and his Gabriel hounds looking wonderfully cool and creepy on the cover, promising a good high fantasy, whereas the interior illustrations at the start of each chapter raised my blood sugar level by several points.
Besides which, while the Dodman is supposedly responsible for the deaths of scads of magical creatures, the only one he actually kills on stage is a tiny winged sprite, and that's just to show how wicked he is. (Whereas Iggy, being a cat, apparently gets a pass for eating the talking cockroaches.) Contrast that with Narnia's White Witch, turning countless talking animals to stone and then for an encore stabbing Aslan through the heart--and as we find out a few books later, she once genocided her former world just to prove she could. With the villain insufficiently deadly, it's harder to stay on the edge of your seat for the hero. (Then again, Johnson doesn't have Christian allegory constantly breaking the fourth wall and trying to stuff a bible down the reader's throat, something which I could not pardon C.S. Lewis for as a child and even less as an adult.)
Gripes aside, The Secret Country,
is still an enjoyable light read and I'm looking forward to the sequel. I'm also going to pass on the book to my twelve-year-old niece to get her take on it, which I'll post here.