Review of the Day: River Secrets
Look, no one is ever going to say that Shannon Hale isn’t one of the finest writers living today. Her books are firmly entrenched between older child readers and young teens. They are also, for the record, full of magic and mystery and wonder and power. We all know this. If you happened, like myself, to read her award winning “Princess Academy”, then you have seen what she is capable of. In my quest to read the best children’s books of 2006, however, I found myself with a copy of “River Secrets” in my hands. Now please bear in mind that I had not read any Hale books aside from “Princess Academy” up until this moment in time. Moreover, I discovered fairly soon that this was the third book in a series that began with “Goose Girl” and carried on into “Enna Burning”. All righty. I like a good challenge. So the question became this: Does “River Secrets” stand as a magnificent novel entirely on its own without your average child joe having read its predecessors? The answer is yes and no. Yes, it is rather magnificent. Hale doles out her humor, compassion, and cleverness in spades. But no, it doesn’t stand entirely on its own. If you know of a kid that enjoyed the first two books in the series, “River Secrets” is going to strike them as an answer to a prayer. If, however, they (like myself) just picked it up because of the pretty pretty cover, they’ll have to be prepared to wade through a lot of exposition and characters they don’t care all that much about for one hundred pages or so. It definitely picks up after a while, but I think to get the full effect you need some background first.
In the past, Razo has never thought of himself as amounting to much. Sure, he’s one of Bayern’s Own, the highly skilled soldiers of the Bayern realm. And he has friends in high places, like Queen Isi, King Geric, and the powerful fire-speaker Enna. But compared to everyone else, Razo sees himself as a goof and the butt of many a joke. Now the country of Tira is attempting to set up diplomatic relations with Bayern since the war between the two countries is over. That means that Enna and Razo are going to accompany their country’s diplomat into the city of Ingridan. This would be all well and good except that A) The Tirans hate the Bayerns and B) Someone is trying to sabotage the peace talks. Now it’s up to Razo to do some heavy duty spying, to figure out who it is that he can trust, and to discover how to get a people to like you when what they want most of all is your head on a pike.
As Hale mentions in a note to the reader, “Razo was a very minor character in The Goose Girl, and though he didn’t even appear in the outline for Enna Burning, he somehow wormed his way into a significant part of that story”. An endearing fellow, Razo’s the kind of goofy nice guy that never got the girl in Molly Ringwold films. Fortunately, Hale makes a special effort to right that wrong. Now admittedly when I first picked up “River Secrets”, I found myself facing what felt like a slightly different take on a Tamora Pierce novel. Both have mythical lands where magic can take place. Both have betrayals, politics, and like “Trickster’s Choice”, “River Secrets” is not afraid to take the P.O.V. of a spy. But Pierce’s books are almost more military than Hale’s. In this story there’s a great deal of finesse at work that takes into account how fashion, food, and language separate one culture from another. Though there’s certainly some kicking butt and taking names, it’s much less prevalent than in your average Pierce novel.
So let’s talk good writing. Here’s a scene where Razo sees the ocean for the first time. “There was no grandeur, not like seeing a mountain; nothing to surround him and make him feel changed, as when he entered a wood or stood in the midst of a snowstorm. Even so, the sea felt bigger than weather, older than ruins. The sight rustled at his soul”. Or howzabout, “After Enna I don’t dare think twice in the same spot”. I could describe to you how effortlessly the book seems to flow. How it never strains one’s credulity or causes one to question the story’s internal logic. It’s just perfectly put words on a page. Nuff said.
Eight grown adults sit around a table discussing this book. One mentions to another that this story made him cry. The other asks which part, and he says “the proposal scene”. She immediately agrees and says that she cried at that part too. Hearing them talk like this, and being a particularly dry-eye member of the fairer sex, was part of the reason I wanted to give “River Secrets” a go. And sure enough, I got a teensy bit weepy in the same scene. Hale is so good that she can elicit hard won tears and laughter out of even the most reluctant of readers. Emotions? You may as well just hand them over when you pick up one of her books, “River Secrets” being no exception. The best part is that she is able to balance everything out with generous dollops of humor. Here’s an ideal example: “His mouth was full of other questions for her... Do you think a person can decide to love only one girl his whole life, then lose her, then find someone else he loves more and change his mind? Do you think that’s possible? Instead he asked, ‘Would you prefer being baked to death under the sun or eaten alive by ants?’”. Not only funny but very in keeping with the personality of the character. Not an easy thing to do.
Hopefully those kids that choose to read this book before its predecessors are good with names. I’m not, and I spent about 50 pages of this title trying to figure out if the good guys were from Bayern or Tira and who the heck Talone, Megina, Conrad, and Ledel were. A list of characters would not have been out of place in such a novel. Of that I am certain. We have some maps, but they don’t help me out if I can’t figure out who the good guys are. Just a suggestion.
It seems to me (and stop me if you think I’m reading too much into a children’s book) that in this day and age of war and preliminary strikes and falsified information compelling us to fight, a book like “River Secrets”, is positively uplifting. Here we have a book who’s entire storyline is based on preventing war. War is the absolute worst thing that could happen in this tale and all the good characters are leaning backwards to see that it doesn’t happen. That’s nice. I’m sick and tired of war and I think kids today will be especially receptive to a book that acknowledges its horrors rather than its glories. Altogether, “River Secrets” fulfills a host of different requirements and comes out swinging. I wouldn’t hand it to a reluctant reader or someone who hasn’t bothered with the first two books, but for everyone else it does not disappoint. Fun.