Reviewed by Wyatt Hanson
The second book in the Keeper of Tales Trilogy, The Chronicle of Secret Riven by volume 3 contributor Ronlyn Domingue, is fascinating both in the story it tells and its execution. Although it might be classified as a fantasy, set as it is in a faraway kingdom of magic, the novel does not quite follow what has become expected from the genre. Instead of featuring an epic globetrotting quest of high adventure, the story follows the daughter of an ambitious historian father and gifted but odd translator mother in an unidentified “Town.” This strange girl, named Evensong but called “Secret,” is unable to speak until she is seven years old. The absence of one ability, however, comes with another and young Secret finds herself able to communicate with plants and animals. The book follows Secret Riven’s life from birth to her eighteenth year as she befriends a prince, struggles to live normally, and finds herself in the thick of her city’s mysterious happenings.
The Chronicle of Secret Riven has many of the trappings of the hero’s journey, a pattern noticed in various narratives throughout history by mythologist Joseph Campbell. Secret is born with a supernatural gift, which is expanded when she suffers an intense fever and awakens with the ability to speak an ancient language. She meets Old Woman, a wise hermit living in the forest who becomes a mentor to the young girl. She even gets a call to adventure in the form of a cipher for a missing arcane manuscript left to her, postmortem, by her mother. Yet Secret is very much a reluctant heroine, refusing to answer this call for much longer than readers might expect or even want. Although this decision may frustrate genre readers, Secret’s reluctance is far more in line with human nature than what has become the norm in fantasy. Humans, just as many other animals, have the instinct of self-preservation which a normal life better accommodates. It’s as if the author is pointing out how unrealistic the life of a typical hero or heroine is. Even so, we get the impression that Secret will eventually complete the rest of her journey in the third book of the trilogy, which we expect will have more of the adventure that is a typical hallmark of fantasy as Secret Riven finds herself unable to avoid her destiny of saving the world.
Stylistically, many aspects of The Chronicle of Secret Riven call to mind myths, legends, and fairy tales. From the first page, Secret is described as having “eyes the color of night and day,” a lyrical phrase that sounds as if it might be recited by a bard. The city and kingdom in which the story unfolds is never named except as “Town,” reminiscent to the classic “in a land far away” setting so common to bedtime stories. And if this isn’t enough, the princesses of the kingdom are named “Pretty” and “Charming.” Another fairytale-esque trait is the emphasis on the relationships between adults and children throughout the novel. Though Secret’s father, Bren, is shown as a mostly loving father, he only agrees with his daughter’s wishes when they conform to his own. In one scene, Secret’s parents witness their daughter perform a mysterious feat of magic: three times, her hair grows instantaneously when she tells the truth, not unlike a reverse Pinocchio. But both her parents never bring the topic up again, afterward, and go about their lives as if it never occurred at all. Most of the novel is told in longer third-person limited chapters focusing on Secret, but these are broken up occasionally by short third-person omniscient chapters, just a few pages long, which break away from Secret to describe the happenings in Town as a whole. In one of these chapters, it is revealed that the children of Town have been sharing similar dreams that their parents ignore, seeing a terrifying dragon and being told it was just a dream. The idea of children being sensitive to the supernatural while adults are blind to it has been featured often in folklore, and Domingue seems deeply sympathetic with the plight of the children in her book.
Overall, The Chronicle of Secret Riven pays tribute to the styles of old while adapting them for a modern audience, showing that myths and legends, fables and fairytales, don’t only come from the past, but are relevant, and can be made anew, in the here and now. It also serves to remind us why these old stories were made in the first place: to teach a lesson. If this novel, like much of folklore, contains a message, perhaps it is that parents must listen to the problems of their children, because if they don’t, who will?
Wyatt Hanson is an undergraduate studying English and creative writing at Lake Superior State University. His book reviews have previously appeared in the Sault Sainte Marie Evening News.