The Secret of Dreadwillow Carse, by Brian Farrey (Algonquin Young Readers, April 2016), is a fine dark-underbelly-of-utopia fantasy for younger middle grade readers. The Monarchy is a Happy place--negative emotions like sadness and fear vanish from peoples minds before they can take root, and so everyone is happy 24/7. Even when their loved ones die, it all is just water off a duck's back. In all the Monarchy, there are only three people who can experience sadness--the Queen, her daughter and heir Jeniah, and a small town girl named Aon.
Aon has grown up in the shadow of the one dark patch on the landscape of the Monarchy--Dreadwillow Carse, and when her sadness (which in large part stems from the loss of her mother) gets too much for her to bear, she finds the heavy, almost intolerable, physic darkness of the foul place gives her some relief. Princess Jeniah learns of Dreadwillow Carse only when her dying mother takes her to the top of the highest tower of the palace (a standard part of the succession process), and tells her never, never to go there, or else the Monarchy will be destroyed.
Jeniah doesn't want to just passively accept this dictate, and channels her grief and frustration about her mother into trying to figure out just what the secret of Dreadwill Carse is. Her search leads her to Aon, who becomes Jeniah's eyes and ears on the ground of the Carse. And together they find the secret, and Jeniah must make the hardest decision of her life as she figures out just what sort of queen, ruling just what sort of country, she wants to be.
The secret is fairly easy to figure out in general terms for experienced fantasy readers, which diminished the emotional power of the story for me, but the 9 or 10 year old reader might not pick up on the clues as quickly as I did. And so though the ending lacked some emotional impact for me, because I was expecting it, the horror may well pack a strong punch for younger readers. It is a pretty horrible horror, which I will describe so that those picking books for sensitive kids can assess nightmare risk-
Aon's father, and other inhabitants of the Monarchy, are planted in Dreadwillow Carse and root their, forced to absorb all the sad and negative emotions of everyone else, and because they only slowly loose their humanity, they suffer horribly. This is the second parent transformed into tree story I've read recently (Grayling's Song, by Karen Cushman), one more and I'll call it a trend....
Despite this horror, I think the book will most appeal to younger MG readers; it is about friendship, and starting to grow up and take on responsibilities while not yet moving into older concerns of full individual autonomy and relationships. And the story felt to me rather straightforward and undemanding, such as I would have enjoyed lots when I myself was nine. There are lots of lovely descriptive bits, making it easy to imagine the setting, and I'm always a sucker for glassblowing, which is Aon's craft.
Jeniah is described as having dark skin; so if you are looking for beautiful and intelligent dark-skinned princess stories, this is a good one!