The Queen’s Secret (A Rose Legacy Novel) – Jessica Day George, Bloomsbury Children’s Books, 2019
Sometimes older genres are rejuvenated by rethinking conventions; this is certainly true in series fiction primarily marketed to girls. In The Queen’s Secret, the second book in Jessica Day George’s fantasy series about girls set in a fictional kingdom torn by conflict, Anthea Cross-Thornley is brave and assertive, and also possesses the Way, a kind of superpower that allows her to communicate with horses. Her relationship with her mother is conflicted, and she does not hesitate to question authority. There is quite a lot in the book to intrigue and entertain middle grade readers, and also encourage them to think.
The book is set in a far-off, but not so far-off, land, both in time and in space. The characters’ names clearly invite associations with Britain, and the locations also have a European flavor. While at first the reader may assume she is in the distant past, references to motor cars and cameras quickly correct that impression. The author succeeds in balancing the fantastic and realistic elements in the narrative by alternating them smoothly and believably. Anthea’s uncanny ability to speak to horses is woven into the other strands of the story: political intrigue, historical allusions, and feminism.
The most interesting part of the novel to me was its theme of mass hysteria and the need to use science to correct misplaced fears of progress. Because a deadly disease with nineteenth-century overtones is attacking people indiscriminately, they seek easy answers and cling to the falsehood that it is transmitted by horses. Here is where readers attracted to the book by the promise of a good story about girls and horses will not be disappointed. Chapters narrated by the horses themselves are interspersed throughout the book, complementing Anthea’s perspective and strengthening the idea of her commitment to save these noble animals from prejudice and hatred.
The solution to the mass terror is the rational solution of inoculating people against the dreaded illness; the discovery that those who are immune to the relatively innocuous “ring pox” are immune to “the Dag” is an obvious historical allusion to physician Edward Jenner’s similar route to protecting patients from smallpox. Jessica Day George has subtly introduced some medical history into her story. Less subtle, but just as welcome, is the prominent role played by women in resolving the book’s central dilemma: “All the scientists were indeed women,” begins one chapter. These women, like the others in the book, are not two-dimensional heroines, but flawed and complex human beings.
The Queen’s Secret should have broad appeal to an audience of middle grade readers. While it may have been envisioned as a book for girls, it should not be a secret that boys can enjoy it, too.