One of my all-time favourite Dutch children's books is De brief aan de koning by Tonke Dragt, and I was thrilled when decades after the original release this much-treasured classic finally received a deserving English language debut with The Letter for the King in 2014, thanks to Pushkin Press in the UK and a beautiful translation by Laura Watkinson. So you can imagine my excitement when the sequel, Secrets of the Wild Wood (originally Geheimen van het Wilde Woud) received an English release this year as well (also translated by Watkinson). Dark and more mature than its precedent, this book continues to capture the magic and adventurous spirit I've come to know and love from Tonke Dragt's imaginative world.
The first novel is a fairly straight-forward story of squire Tuiri's mission to deliver an important letter to the King of Unauwen on the other side of the Great Mountains and the trials and tribulations that are waiting for him on his dangerous journey – not in the least the Red Riders who have killed the previous messenger; The Black Knight With the White Shield. It's a fantastical adventure that thrills on every page and set in a fictional medieval land it's the perfect classic to dream away with.
In its sequel, we return to the world of Tiuri who is now a knight himself with his loyal friend Piak by his side as his squire. Was the King of Eviellan and the rivalry between the two twin princes of Unauwen merely a whisper behind the pages of The Letter for the King, in The Secrets of the Wild Wood unrest has been brewing for far longer and with one of the knights from the first book having gone missing in the ominous Wild Wood, Tiuri and Piak set out on a mission to discover what trouble is laying ahead for the Kingdoms of Unauwen and Dagonaut.
Unlike Tuiri and Piak's first adventure, the people they meet on this perilous journey aren't easily categorised as good or bad guys, and their world is no longer black or white. Friends can become foes and villains temporary allies, but amid the heat and confusion of a looming war, the two friends have each other to rely on as they discover the truth about the evil king of Eviellan – and they combine forces with new characters to try to stop a full-blown war from erupting between the Kingdoms.
Despite my love for The Letter for the King, for some peculiar reason I had never read its sequel before (even though it was released well before I was born so I have had plenty of time to pick it up!) and I am so glad that the English release finally made me read it, because it's another fast-paced and gripping classic that will stay with me for a long time.
The biggest difference between the two books is that with Tiuri becoming a knight, the story has also grown up to become more mature and complicated. Rather than a straight-forward children's tale of good versus evil, there are many shades of grey along the way and this makes The Secrets of the Wild Wood a far more intense and complicated novel. Added to that there are the first signs of love blossoming between Tiuri and a princess he meets on his travels, a plethora of intense fight scenes and a lot of horrific deaths accompanying the looming war, all of which add to the feeling of maturity that cuts through the otherwise still heavily adventurous fantasy read.
That isn't to say there weren't moments of sheer wonder running throughout both for Tiuri and the reader as a new part of Tiuri's exciting world is uncovered and an almost whimsical feeling of delight at exploring the corners of The Wild Wood, but interspersed with deaths of much-loved characters and a confusing cat-and-mouse game with The King of Eviellan, this was a far darker novel to read than its precedent. And one I took my time to finish, as it was a hefty one too.
What I loved most in The Letter for the King was Tiuri and Piak's growing friendship and despite having their own journeys in The Secrets of the Wild Wood, and their own missions to accomplish, the incredible connection between the two best friends was always there. Even when things got really tough for them, just knowing that the other person was out there working towards a similar goal made a huge difference and let them see through the darkness surrounding the wicked plans of Eviellan.
The Secrets of the Wild Wood is another epic adventure that feels similar to fantastical tale The Lord of the Rings, yet has its own distinctive voice and imaginative world-building to create a truly unique fantasy classic that I am thrilled will now reach a whole new audience with its excellent English translation. Tiuri and Piak may not have pointy ears and hairy feet, but they are such heroic and compelling fantasy characters that they could very well go down in literary history alongside Frodo and Bilbo.
Many thanks to the publisher for a copy of the novel in exchange for an honest review.
The Secrets of the Wild Wood is published by Pushkin Press and you can purchase a copy of the novel from Foyles or your own preferred retailer.