The Chronicle of Secret Riven by Ronlyn Domingue
It’s not that often that I’ll pick up the second book of a series after I couldn’t finish the first (I’m not even sure it’s ever happened). But while The Mapmaker’s War, Ronlyn Domingue’s first book in her KEEPER OF TALES trilogy, drove me to give it up about seventy percent through, mostly because I just didn’t care much about what happened to anyone, there was enough talent in the writing and ambition in the telling that I was willing to give book two a shot. I confess, it also helped that I knew The Chronicles of Secret Riven was set roughly a millennium or so in the future and used a different point of view. The sequel still has a few carry-over issues from its predecessor, and admittedly a few new ones as well, but overall I found the reading experience a vast improvement and am mostly looking forward to book three.
We’re introduced to the title character as a very young girl, one who is mute, but who has the gift of being able to speak with plants and animals. This is a gift she carefully hides for much of the book. We move slowly with Secret through her early years spent with her very distant mother and loving but somewhat mysterious and unpredictable father. We witness her moments of happiness and pain with her parents, then at school (where she is bullied for being strange), see her speak for the first time at age seven, watch her develop close-but-not-too-close relationships with an old woman in the woods, with the fig tree in her back yard, and with Prince Nikolas, who becomes her most intimate friend. When Secret turns twelve, the outer world intrudes into this inner world via a strange manuscript sent by a mysterious client to her mother (a perhaps supernaturally gifted translator), setting into motion more traditionally suspenseful/sinister plot points. Secret also suffers at this time from a major illness that leaves her with recurrent problems and also with a strange gift of a new language. In the latter part of the book, she becomes an apprentice at her father’s workplace, run by the wonderfully named Mr. Fewmany, a powerful figure in the world who has long taken an interest in Secret and who also, for some reason, sends up an internal red flag in both Secret and Nikolas.
Usually I like to start with the positives of a book, but I’m going to turn things upside down here and begin with the negatives of The Chronicles of Secret Riven, as they’ll allow me to better discuss the book’s stronger elements.
The first issue is pretty basic; lots of people will probably find this book way too slow and complain that “nothing happens.” And on one level, they’d be right. The pace is absolutely slow, especially in the first half of the book, where it takes us 150 pages to get Secret to age 12. Up to that point, it’s a dreamily paced unfolding, a quiet, mostly internal blossoming of a very young, very introverted, girl who moves within a quite circumscribed world. Past that point, it loses much of the dreamy feel, but remains a slow, quiet story about an only slightly-less introverted young woman who moves with an only slightly-enlarged world. “Action,” in other words, is not what you come to The Chronicles of Secret Riven for. And if the measured day-to-day, year-to-year growth of a person, told via a series of mostly quiet moments — realizing she doesn’t have to be as mean as the mean girls, going shopping for a new dress, wrestling with the conflicting attitude toward a cold mother — and details like the shape of perfume bottles on a shelf or a line of ants on the floor is not your definition of “plot,” (and I admit, at times I wondered at what seemed a lack of selectivity when it came to both moments and details), well then, this is probably not the book for you.
Another potential stumbling block is depth of character, or perhaps lack thereof. Secret is the only one that feels fully present on the page. Her mother is offered with a welcome complexity, but remains mostly a cipher. Her father has hints of his own complex nature, but they remain mostly just that — hints and asides, and he sort of falls into an airy almost-nothingness for much of the book. Other characters are either simply a grouping of basic traits and character types: the kind, good prince (Nikolas), the strangely sinister man (Fewmany), the wise old woman (Old Woman). When Secret thinks of her future — where she might go for academy — and mentions her “friends,” I had no sense at all of any sort of relationship attached to the names that come to her mind.
The setting and worldbuilding of The Chronicles of Secret Riven is equally flat and bare-boned, with little to no sense not only of the wider world outside the village (let alone outside the kingdom) but even of the village itself.
Structurally and stylistically, Domingue employs interlude sections, interweaving brief second-person POVs amongst the chapters detailing the main narrative. I think the intent here was to present that wider view that I mention is missing in the worldbuilding, but I don’t think the attempt succeeds. The second-person, which Domingue used throughout The Mapmaker’s War and which I thought did a disservice to her story, is less wearisome here, coming as it does in intermittent short chapters only. But it feels forced and stylistically artificial, as if the author is pushing too hard for a “literary” feel. In addition, I found several of the chapters pushed too hard at the reader in terms of theme, leading me to write “too much” in the margin of more than one of these sections. Due to their stylistic awkwardness, and the fact that they slowed the book’s pace (albeit not too greatly thanks to their brevity), I think The Chronicles of Secret Riven would have been better off without them.
Finally, what might be the most common complaint by readers is that the book seems to end just as it is beginning. The long, measured journey from Secret’s childhood to her graduation from school and the job with Fewmany (the last two happening only in the last 40 pages) can feel like a too-slow build up to the main events, an overly-long prologue, in other words. Again, one’s view on this will be determined by one’s stance on just what is “action” or “plot” and what is not.
So, what to like then?
Well, I don’t tend to fall into the “Action = noise and motion and fights and journeys” camp, so I was willing to just drift along with young Secret for the most part. I think what Domingue is going for in The Chronicles of Secret Riven is not so much carrying along the reader via “plot,” i.e., a wave of significant and/or exciting events, but more a submerging of the reader, an immersion more than a carrying. I thought this was particularly apt choice (if that is in fact what she’s doing) for a character like Secret who is so introverted, who is, in fact, submerged so much into herself. And I think Domingue does a lovely job with this, both in her level of detail and her prose style. And she does a particularly effective, if painful, job in depicting Secret’s relationship with her mother, who is not only generally distant, but has “good Zavet” days and “bad Zavet” days.
Meanwhile, if the characters beyond Secret, and perhaps her mother, are not so fully drawn, that seems more purposeful than not. In The Mapmaker’s War, it seemed that Domingue was working very overtly in a mythic/archetypical style (and in fact, given the jump in time, the events of that book have become myth in this one, twisted over the years as is often the case with myth, legend, and history). That continues here, with the good-hearted prince who needs to go on a quest, for instance, a classic archetype. And one can’t get much more direct than naming a character “Old Woman” and putting her in a cottage in the woods, inevitably calling up all the associations with folktales and myth and dream: the witch of Hansel and Gretel, Red Riding Hood’s grandmother, Baba Yaga, Joseph Campbell’s Crone, Jung’s Wise Old Woman of the shared unconscious. In other words, the flatness of these characters is not a flaw but a signpost. In The Mapmaker’s War, I thought the author tipped too far in aiming for the mythic tone, distancing the reader too much from the story and the characters (here is where I thought the second person didn’t help). But in The Chronicles of Secret Riven, Domingue, via that immersive, intimate sense of Secret herself, keeps us grounded in at least one character we feel for, something I think is almost a necessity to keep us reading (note I’m not saying we have to like a character, but I do think we need to care about what happens to them). I should add, however, that the author gets to have her cake and eat it to, as the appendix gives us several of the actual myths alluded to throughout the series.
I’m not exactly sure where Domingue is going with this trilogy, thanks in part to the slow build up and the vagueness/opacity of some of the characters, as well as the barely-there references to a few plot points set in motion (not discussed here so as to avoid spoilers). But I didn’t really feel the need to get anywhere, either. In fact, those times where I felt the author was prodding me too much, such as those interlude chapters, or a few other spots, were the parts of The Chronicles of Secret Riven that I was most resistant to. The precise prose; the measured, peaceful pace; the tiny details of a relatively quiet but attentive life were more than enough to overcome the book’s weaknesses. The story is for sure unresolved, so book three will go a long ways toward determining a recommendation, but right now I’m glad I didn’t let my experience with book one prevent me from trying the sequel.
I think it’s great that you continued on with the series even though you didn’t finish the first book. But I do think I’ll wait until they’re all published before giving the trilogy a chance, myself.
I don’t know, I think I’m going to go for it. I like immersive works and it sounds like you don’t have to have read the first one to appreciate this one. And I love the character’s name.