Books · Ex Libris

Ex Libris #1

I own a lot of books, but I have very few shelves, and lack space to add more. This means that most of my books live boxed up in storage. I make periodic forays to store books I’ve read, retrieve ones I need, and assure old favourites that they haven’t been forgotten. Like many bibliophiles, I love old books, and many of the books in my collection are out of print, or hard to find editions. Partly to remind myself of what I do own (and have yet to read in some cases), and partly for the joy of recommending favourites, and sharing how beautiful they are, I’ve decided to take a regular trip out to the ‘stacks’, so that I can do a monthly book post here.

My first candidate was close at hand, as it arrived last week, and is waiting to be read. It’s not especially beautiful, but I wanted to share it as there’s a bit of a story to the acquisition.

Allow me to set the scene: It was 1997 and our young Polymath had much more free time for reading. Some kind person, knowing my reading tastes (I was working my way along the SFF shelf at Norwich Central Library at the time), gave my mum an entire box of second-hand fantasy novels for me. There was some Fritz Leiber, a Pratchett or two, and a fascinating short novel about a group of kids who end up in a fantasy world of their own invention. Given I was the kind of kid who routinely checked old wardrobes for routes into Narnia, and was inspired to map my own fantasy worlds after reading The Hobbit, you’ll gather this struck a cord with me. At the same time, it was one of those novels that was a bit unsettling, that left questions unanswered and stayed with you after you’d finished.

I read the book a few times, and then it disappeared somewhere in the shuffle of moving away to Uni, and I never saw it again. From time to time I’ve thought about it, and wished I could read it again. There was just one problem. I couldn’t remember what it was called, or who had written it.

Fast forward to this summer, when, for some reason, I could not get the book out of my head. There was only one thing for it – write down everything I could remember, and take to the internet to track it down.

What did I know?

  • I was certain the author was female.
  • I knew that it was actually a sequel to an earlier book. The ending suggested that it might continue on as a trilogy.
  • There were four children (two girls, two boys) who were cousins. I was fairly sure the younger of the boys was called Paul.
  • It was set in the US.
  • The cousins met up in the holidays and acted out scenes set in the fantasy land they’d invented.
  • Somehow in the previous book they had ended up in their fantasy land and were playing the roles of Princes and Princesses.
  • There were unicorns.
  • Some sort of plot was afoot, and they didn’t know how or if they should prevent it.
  • In the end it was revealed that someone from the land itself was manipulating them. I was fairly sure this villain was called Claudia.

Armed with this knowledge, I turned to Google.

The first thing to note is that if you search for “children’s fantasy novel, 4 children, crossing worlds” or any variation on this, the first 100-odd entries are Narnia. My varied search terms also threw up Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising series enough times for me to start questioning whether I had seriously misremembered the story. Next, I looked at Wikipedia lists for children’s fantasy novels by decade of publication. Nothing jumped out at me. Finally, I hit on the idea of trawling through the Wikipedia list of imaginary lands. I was sure that I would recognise the name of the place if I saw it. The Hidden Land stirred a memory, but, of course, was pretty much the only entry that didn’t link to it’s own page.

Back to Google I went, and, at last, found what I was looking for: Pamela Dean’s Hidden Land trilogy, the second book of which, The Hidden Land, I had once owned. I did have some of the details wrong – there were 5 children not 4, and the boy was called Patrick, not Paul – but I’d remembered a lot of it right, which is a testament to a good story. Despite a reprint in 2003 it doesn’t seem that this series has had anything like the attention that other children’s fantasy has received in the wake of the boy wizard, and they are now out of print again. I ordered a secondhand copy of The Secret Country (the first book), and will pick up the others in due course.

They seem to have rebranded it the ‘Secret Country Trilogy’ for the reprint – everything I found online refers to the Hidden Land. Interesting.
There’s something very satisfying about tracking down something that you’d thought was lost, and I’m looking forward to getting reacquainted with Pamela Dean’s work and finally reading the full story.

While I enjoy this kind of research, I appreciate not everyone is willing to read endless pages of Wikipedia lists. If you’re trying to track down a book, there are a number of places online (GoodReads and Reddit spring to mind) where you can put details of the book you’re trying to find and ask if anyone knows what it is. But if it features 4 children and an imaginary land, be prepared for every answer to be Narnia 🙂

Next Time: I will actually go out in the cold and look for a book, I swear. I’m thinking something from Classics, or the Oddments box.