I enjoyed Brian Ferrey' The Vengekeep Prophecies trilogy, but missed that he had a new book out until I stumbled on The Secret of Dreadwillow Carse in the library. I checked it out and then received some encouragement to bump it up my pile from a friend, and I thoroughly enjoyed reading it.
Princess Jeniah will become Queen far sooner than anyone was expecting. Yes, the rulers of Monarchy tend to die younger than most, but everyone assumed there would be more time to prepare Jeniah than this. As Jeniah's training hastily begins, she is shown her entire kingdom from atop a tower and gets her first glimpse of Dreadwillow Carse. She is warned never to go there for if a ruler of Monarchy goes to the Carse, the monarchy will fall. In the village next to the Carse there lives a girl named Aon who has a deep secret. She can feel sadness, pain, and mourning where everyone else in the kingdom can only feel joy and happiness. The Carse is a refuge to Aon who goes there to shed her sadness even though it repulses her at the same time it welcomes her. When the girls meet by chance, they strike a deal. Aon will explore the Carse on Jeniah's behalf if Jeniah frees her father from the mysterious service he was conscripted into for the kingdom. Through exchanged letters, the girls become friends. When Aon ventures into the heart of the Carse and doesn't return, Jeniah must decide whether to risk Monarchy to save her friend.
One of the things I really appreciated about this book is it is a friendship tale documenting a wonderful bond between girls who appear vastly different but need each other. It is excellent fantasy too, but at its core it's the tale of two girls and their bonds to each other, their pasts, and the people of Monarchy. Jeniah has never had anyone her age to share her thoughts and sorrows with, because no one in Monarchy excepting the royal family is supposed to feel anything but joy. She is surprised to learn that Aon can too, but quickly embraces this and begins to open up to her. Aon has never been able to confess her secret to anyone for fear of what they will think. While she fears she overstepped herself confessing to Jeniah, she too soon finds comfort in having someone who understands. I loved how their relationship developed through letters too. The story moves back and forth between the girls alternating chapters. I enjoyed the way Farrey wove them together. Sometimes they overlapped and we were seeing the same scene again but from an entirely different perspective. I thoroughly loved both of the girls, their views on the world, how they dealt with their emotions, and their bravery which manifested in different ways.
The Secret of Dreadwillow Carse is a stand alone MG fantasy and a quick read. Hallelujah. Please, give us more of these. The pacing of the story is pretty near to perfect moving the reader quickly along and conveying information at exactly the right points and in the right ways. It is part mystery. What is the Carse? Why is it there? Why is it so dangerous to the Monarchy? Why is Aon able to overcome the aversion everyone else has to going inside? The answers to these questions are given slow and the girls have to piece them all together. The revelation and final conflict that results is equal parts creepy and staggering moral dilemma. Through that Farrey was able to weave some interesting themes about the power of fear and the idea of joy without the despair. There is a lot of good food for thought or discussion here. Not many details of the world are given, and I do think the world building is the book's weakest point. The only places in Monarchy mentioned are the palace, the Carse (near Aon's village), and the village itself-all of these are so close together that traveling between them happens incredibly quickly. I did find myself wondering about the rest of the country, it's neighbors, and how exactly all that worked. But that is a minor complaint about a book that has many more strengths to recommend it.
For readers who enjoy friendship stories and fantasy adventures, The Secret of Dreadwillow Carse is a must have.